Catching up (Part 1)

February 2020

Yep. You read that right. February 2020. Just before you know what kicked off and the stages went dark. You would have thought that the last 18 months would have given the Tourist plenty of time and inclination to continue reporting on his cultural journey. But no. Despite his multiple privileges which meant the pandemic had minimal impact on his day to day existence he still fell into the pit marked “intellectual lethargy” spending way to much time looking at a screen and moaning about the world.

But a repeated dose of live theatre (along with Oxford/Astra Zeneca’s elixir – thank you) has, you may or may not be pleased to hear, given him back his mojo. And he has remembered just how useful it is to record what he sees and hears to make sure he keeps on learning and stops grumbling.

So a quick catch up to complete the archives and then some recent highlights. The watchword is brevity. So a few lines only.

The Tin Drum – Coronet Theatre. 24th February 2020. *****. A separate post finally completed.

Tryst – Chiswick Playhouse. 25th February 2020. ****. Front row in this charming space. Second time around at the CP of a play first seen a couple of decades ago. Karoline Leach’s script is based on the real life story of bigamist con-man George Joseph Smith, a serial killer infamous for the Brides in the Bath Murders at the start of the 20th century.¬†Fred Perry played George with a mixture of menace and charm. Scarlett Brookes (just seen again by the Tourist at the Orange Tree) was more successful as the bright but naive shop assistant Adelaide Pinchkin dreaming of a better life. Power shifts intriguingly though the production, directed by Phoebe Barran and mostly narrated, sometimes dragged a little and dialled down the suspense. A smart set from Jessica Staton with the two actors artfully shifted props. Overall the SO and I were entertained. Mind you this was right up our collective street.

Pass Over – Kiln Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Antoinette Nwandu’s 2017 play was filmed in 2018 by no less a creative genius than Spike Lee. So we are dealing with a highly regarded rendering of contemporary Black experience here. Easy to see why Kiln’s AD Indhu Rubasingham was keen to take this one for herself. Moses (Paapa Essiedu) and Kitch (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) are on an American city street corner shooting the breeze and dreaming of lives they will never have passe Vladimir and Estragon. This space though, simply staged by Robert Jones, is gradually revealed as limiting and threatening. Their swagger is matched by their fear of the police. They meet Mister (Alexander Eliot), a folksy eccentric with white suit and picnic basket, whose condescending offer of food and friendship masks racist privilege and manufactured offence. Absurdist but not tortuous, packed with allusion, to history, the Old Testament, contemporary race politics, heavy with carefully chosen dialogue but never dense. Tonal uncertainty can ruin plays of this type but not here, though it is at its best when its political message is not directly articulated as in the beginning of Act 2. Paapa Essiedu and Gershwyn Eustache Jr knock it out of the park as the nervy Moses and wistful Kitch but Alexander Eliot, as he did with Solyony in Rebecca Frecknall’s dreamy Three Sisters at the Almeida, mastered a very tough gig as both Mister and the overtly racist policeman Occifer. Can’t help thinking this needs a wider and bigger audience.

A Number – Bridge Theatre. 26th February 2020. ****. Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece from 2002 about cloning, its possibilities and its pitfalls, was given a robust workout by director Polly Findlay, with Roger Allam as the shambling father, Salter, and Colin Morgan as the sons. Once you get over the initial set up, which of the estranged sons is the “unsatisfactory real thing” and which are the clones, then there is not much in the way of CC’s usual formal experimentation or surrealist play on show here. And, in order to explore the various consequences of the subject matter, scientific, philosophical, ethical, familial, and otherwise, CC loads up with some sparkling dialogue. None of the sparse ellipses that characterise her very latest works. The setting from Lizzie Clachlan was dowdily domestic, the humour, of which there is plenty, played up, especially by the ever-droll Mr Allam. Salter didn’t really think through when he opted to “improve” on the original and the emotional effects on his son, and the copies, requested and rogue, were well played, without losing sight of the core “hard problem” of what it is to actually be human and how we “identify”. Colin Morgan offered a convincing degree of differentiation, Bernard 1 angry, Bernard 2 confused, “Michael” no 3 nonchalant, but this effort meant he, and Roger Allam, didn’t always connect or clash as much as they might/should. And some of the clues about the relationship between father and son didn’t always land. The play runs to an hour but felt a little longer with CC pauses and tics and some deliberately disorientating stage revolves between the five “acts”. Another production with, coincidentally given the above, Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James (a first on stage for me), and directed by Churchill specialist Lyndsey Turner, will appear at the Old Vic in early 2022. I can’t wait to compare, contrast and, as always on repeated viewing of CC’s work, learn and love more.

Death of England. National Theatre Dorfman. 29th February 2020. *****. Apropos of nothing, and paraphrasing for dramatic effect, someone said in my hearing recently that Rafe Spall didn’t make for a convincing Judge Brack in Ivo van Hove’s 2016 Hedda Gabler at the NT. Something along the lines of not nasty enough. My first reaction was to disagree; in a production stripped of its historical context, his was a deliberately unsubtle and brutally physical Brack. But actually they had a point. There is a whiff of little boy lost about Mr Spall which left a scintilla of doubt. In Roy William’s and Clint Dyer’s one man confessional/state of the nation play, Death of England, this vulnerability, however, literally repaid us with interest. Spall played Essex’s finest, Michael, grieving son to a dear and recently departed, but racist father, and best friend to Delroy, who is his sister’s partner. Along the way Spall also takes in his Dad, Delroy’s Mum, a restaurant owner with a vital story to tell, amongst others. He does all this at lightening speed, in both voice and movement, plucking props out of nooks and crannies from Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ’s St George’s Cross transverse stage and with occasional asides to the audience. There is much to like, and dislike, about Michael, a confident, lairy swagger fuelled by coke, convulsed by his Dad’s death, riven by contradiction about what it means to be white, male and working class in Britain today. Spall’s performance was hyper, exaggerated by Jackie Shemesh’s often glaring lighting, paralleling Michael’s own psyche, barreling towards the tour de force of his climatic drunken funeral oration. As in Roy William’s Sing Your Heart Out …. , football, nationhood and racism are intertwined though here more as metaphor, Dad dies just after the semi-final loss in 2018, than plot. Now with added Brexit. Michael knows what he is supposed to be against but what exactly is he for? OK so the script wobbles a bit on occasion and the intensity of performance and Clint Dyer’s direction makes it easier to recognise that completely understand the paradox of Michael but it was impossible not to be bowled over by its commitment.

What else that month? A couple of concerts. The Bang on a Can All Stars, champions of post-minimalism with a mixed programme including John Adams (The Chairman Dances), Julia Wolfe (Flower Power), Steve Martland (Horses of Instruction) and Philip Glass (Symphony No 2 arranged for string Orchestra), which was OK but nothing more and an energetic, spirited and ultimately convincing recital from pianist Boris Giltburg of Beethoven sonatas (Ops 26, 57, 109 and 111).

Hamlet at the Hackney Empire review ****

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Hamlet

Hackney Empire, 19th March 2018

Working on the premise that it surely is impossible to see Hamlet too often in a lifetime, and keen to make sure the RSC continues to bring as many productions as possible to London, I signed up some time ago for this gig. This despite having already seen the cinema broadcast from Stratford in 2016. A bit excessive I hear you cry. Nope, not when you have an actor as gifted as Paapa Essiedu. His Edmund in the RSC King Lear in 2016 was the best thing about the production, which was pretty good despite some misgivings about the play and Antony Sher’s Lear. Hopefully you had a chance to see him on the tour of this production before it came to the venerable Empire. If you are anywhere near the Kennedy Centre, Washington (DC not Tyne and Wear) in early May I commend you to get along for the last leg of this tour.

There is more to this production, directed by Simon Godwin, than Mr Essiedu however. Mr Godwin has demonstrated that he has a way of breathing new life into classic texts, combining innovation and fealty. (Twelfth Night at the National Theatre review ****). Denmark has been re-imagined as a West African state which yields some interesting insights and a design concept for Elsinore a long way from the usual Northern European Stygian gloom. The programme notes, (I don’t know why people don’t buy programmes, at the very least at the major subsidised theatres, there is so much to learn from them), refer to Hamlet coming “home” after his years studying in Wurttemberg and how he is torn between cultures. There is some mileage in this idea which the production gently explores. There are parallels with Tshembe Matoseh, the main protagonist in Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece Les Blancs. No doubt you clever people can think of other theatrical “culture-clash” conceits. Of course transporting the look and the backdrop of the play to West Africa, whilst still retaining a text and characters anchored in Shakespeare’s vague Denmark, throws up a few contradictions but I think that was largely the point. Your man Hamlet after all isn’t short of cognitive dissonance.

So our sweet Prince is already on edge and suspicious of how Claudius came to power. When he sees Dad’s ghost on the ramparts all togged out in tribal chief paraphernalia, in contrast to the modern dress of the present Court, he quickly resolves to action. There is a sense throughout that this Hamlet, whilst not knowing how and when, and running through the gamut of hesitant self examination, is powered by the powerful urge to right a wrong. His feigned madness, his toying with Polonius, the verbal sparring with Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the taunting of Claudius and Gertrude, the carousing with the players, are all in the service of avenging the old fella. The production breaks at the Claudius prayer scene with Hamlet circling in the shadows, gun in hand. I wasn’t sure but I reckon this was only ever going to be a reprieve for Claudius. (Of course I was sure, we all know what happens, but my point is this was a Hamlet who was just gearing up to the main event not a bottler with an uncertain grip on his own reality). “To be or not to be” is a pep talk to self here, not a page from Kierkegaard.

Paapa Essiedu fits this conflicted, mischievous Hamlet like a glove. There is not one single word, let along line, that doesn’t sound entirely right. He doesn’t hang around or over-elaborate, but there is still enough space around the words to take them in. Not the conversational musing of Andrew Scott at the Almeida or the irked ironic philosophising of Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Just a spontaneous intelligence which makes you wonder why other actors seem to agonise over the right tone to take for this admittedly complicated young fella. His movement and expression is flawless. He can project a single glance to the back of the balcony. He seems to find the shifts from comedy to tragedy, well, just easy. Look out for the laugh he conjures up when pulling Polonius’s body from behind the arras. And I know it shouldn’t matter but it really helps that he is the right age and he is beautiful. PE himself seeming to be a combination of child, student, lover, playboy, artist, he knows enough to question what it is all about, but not enough to buckle under the weight of his own existentialist uncertainties. And, despite all the moping about and hissy fits, you can see why people are really drawn to him and crave his approval.

Compare this to Clarence Smith’s Claudius which is far more old-skool declamatory, though this works pretty well in this context. A far cry from the last time I saw this fine actor as the broken Selwyn in Roy Williams’s brilliant latest play The Firm (The Firm at the Hampstead Theatre review *****). I wasn’t entirely convinced initially by the versatile Lorna Brown’s seemingly withdrawn and inert Gertrude, but this made more sense as the production unfolded and the final death scene was very poignant. He’s still her little boy you see.

In the scenes between Polonius (Joseph Mydell), Laertes (Buom Tihngang) and Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) there was a real sense of a loving family, something I had not really felt before. Matching Papa Essiedu’s dazzling performance was a tall order for the rest of the cast but Mmi Ndiweni, (taking on the role from Natalie Simpson in the first Stratford incarnation), came pretty close. The mad scene was both very moving and very scary. Mind you I am a sucker for a distraught Ophelia. And, thanks to both actors, Hamlet’s dismissal of Ophelia, here played out whilst writhing around in bed, actually made sense. Romayne Andrews and Eleanor Wyld as Rosencrantz and Guildernstern struck all the right notes, dislocated in this very different Denmark, and Ewart James Walters turned in some scene stealers doubling as a booming Old Hamlet and a Gravedigger who, judging by his accent, had taken a long way round to get to this particular Denmark.

The production really comes to vibrant life when the colours, sounds and dance of West Africa are brought to the stage thanks to Paul Anderson (lighting), Sola Akingbola (composer), Christopher Shutt (sound) and¬†Mbulelo Ndabeni. The players are no afterthought here. Locating Hamlet’s antic disposition in the artistic milieu of Jean-Michel Basquiat works far better on stage than on paper. You are left wondering if Simon Godwin and the team might have found a few more visual or textual signifiers to flesh out Claudius’s rise to, (diplomatic duplicity alongside an arranged murder?), and fall from, power, and the effect of conflict with the “Norwegian” neighbours, though I get this might have made for an uneasy narrative. It may have helped ease the shift into the bloody carnage of Act V though.

Anyway not quite a perfect Hamlet (play) if such a thing where ever possible. But certainly a near perfect Hamlet (bloke) thanks to Paapa Essiedu. I think I have been guilty of saying too often that I can’t wait to see what xxxx does next on stage in this blog. In this case it is really true and I suspect most of those who have seen this production would agree. On this evidence anything is possible from this rare talent. There are some actors who convince but stay firmly rooted to the stage behind the invisible wall. There are some though that seem to magically come off and out to play to you alone. PE is one of these.