Measure for Measure at the Barbican Theatre review ****

Measure for Measure

Barbican Theatre, 8th January 2020

I like Measure for Measure. I find the weird cocktail of morality play and satirical “comedy” fascinating. No one comes out of it well, not even the ostensibly virtuous Isabella who goes into bat to save brother Claudio from death, but is prepared to sign off on a pretty dodgy deal to further this aim. The stench of corruption infects even the pure. This makes it a very “modern” play I guess, which is why it is getting multiple airings, with much to say, in the right hands, about the complexities of power and desire. Not quite at the top of Will’s oeuvre but certainly in the top ten. Which, for your edification, I set out below.

  1. Othello
  2. Hamlet
  3. Julius Caesar
  4. Much Ado About Nothing
  5. Richard III
  6. Coriolanus
  7. Henry VI, Part I, II, III
  8. Richard II
  9. Measure for Measure
  10. Pericles

What no Lear? Or Dream? Or Romeo and Juliet? Or Tempest? Or Twelfth Night? And Coriolanus included? And, are you mad mate, also Pericles? Well yes I like the latter’s daft fantasy travelogue, even those bits which stem from the unsubtle hand of George Wilkins, and Coriolanus strikes me as the very model of classical tragic hero, not prone to bouts of soul sharing pace Lear, Macbeth or your boy Hamlet. And the list shows pretty clearly that I like history plays. Power, politics, virtue, honour, social as well as individual psychology, the ruler and the ruled, corruption, narcissism, jealousy. These are the things that interest me. The dark side of human nature that Will explored forensically and which make many of these plays relevant to our, or any other, time. Don’t worry though. I am not a weirdo. Much Ado About Nothing is in there.

Of course much depends on the productions I have seen and I think I have been blessed in recent years in the history and “Roman” play departments in particular. Maybe one day I will see a Macbeth or Lear that truly persuades. That’s the thing with Shakespeare. Ultimately malleable, such that creatives and cast can usually find something, language, message, narrative, character, spectacle, in which to delight and illuminate.

As here. Gregory Doran is probably the most reliable Shakespearean director of our time, useful when you are the big cheese at the RSC. Maybe not the most spectacular of interpreters but always clear in purpose and execution. No gimmickry with this, which I think is his first stab at MFM, unless you count setting the play in fin de siecle Vienna, a point in the city’s history when virtue and corruption, intellect and expedience, reached there apogee, and, arguably laid the ground for what followed, good and bad, very bad, in much of the Western world through the first half of the C20. It is almost as if big Will, with his fictional late C16 fictional Vienna could see what the real city would become three centuries later. (I gather this connection has been made in previous productions).

Otherwise GD, and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis using the set structure common to the season’s productions of As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew, with added monochrome projections as well as 1900s period costume, don’t muck about with text or cast. Paul Englishby’s score echoes with waltz. Escalus, in the hands of Claire Price, is re-gendered, as is the Provost (very effectively by Amanda Harris), but then again Mistress Overdone is, campily, handed to Graeme Brookes. But there is no wholesale gender politics reinterpretation here. And the text is, I think, complete so that said Overdone, Pompey (David Ajao versed with Afro-Caribbean sonority), Elbow (Michael Patrick) and the major, (Joseph Arkley especially as supercilious Lucio), and minor fops and fop-esses, all get their due, though the wordplay comedy requires our close attention.

RSC veteran Antony Byrne unsurprisingly nails the Duke/Friar, a man convinced of his own righteousness as he is blind to the flaws in his exercise of power, James Cooney is a quietly desperate Claudio and Lucy Phelps excels as the virtuous novice, at least until the scheme to uncover Angelo’s hypocrisy is set in motion, Isabella. But the whole is held in place by a marvellous performance by Sandy Grierson as said self-scourging Angelo, who really gets to the heart of said Angelo’s conflicted nature. Or is he, as here, not really quite as conflicted as he makes out, revelling in the opportunity to root out Vienna’s impurity whilst lusting after the eloquent nun. The ghost of an approving Freud was probably sitting in the gods.

Mr Grierson stood out in Jude Christian patchy OthelloMacbeth at the Lyric, Pity at the Royal Court and in As You Like It (of which more to come) in this RSC season but, unfortunately, I have missed him in the other RSC roles he has played in recent years, and on various stages in his native Scotland. I suggest you ensure you see him next time he treads any accessible boards.

The trick in MFM, assuming no re-interpretation, is having the two main characters in Isabella and Angelo both repelled by sex, but also, somehow, fascinated by the idea of desire, which drives the pivotal argument scenes between them. They are both, literally in joint prayer, holier than thou, at least until Angelo cracks. GD’s clear headed direction, and Lucy Phelps’s and Sandy Grierson’s delivery of the text, expertly unfolds the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. And there is no hiding from the fact that Angelo, and, through his casual “proposal” at the end, the Duke, even maybe against his preference, are choosing to be rapists.

Lots of detail, well thought through, ambiguity and double binds not brushed away. This is not a problem play. The problem, as ever, is us humans. If you want a contemporary feel-gooder with a happy ending go see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

Peer Gynt at the National Theatre review ****

Peer Gynt

National Theatre Olivier, 1st October 2019

I know what I need. A bit more Ibsen. There are reasons why theatre-makers keep returning to the master and the slew of high profile productions in London this year alone is a reminder of why. I would probably plump for Ian Rickson’s Rosmersholm as the best of the bunch but there have been others that have captured the great playwright’s unique cocktail of thrilling drama, scathing political and moral critique and meticulous psychological insight.

Right now I crave a John Gabriel Borkman, a play that I have never seen and which I gather offers a challenge to directors in reconciling its melodramatic, symbolic final act to the realism of what has proceeded it. I don’t suppose I will have to wait too long though. In the meantime Peer Gynt, the romance, fantasy, epic, modernist mix of surrealism, poetry, naturalism and confessional, written in Danish verse over five acts, that has been challenging and delighting theatre makers and audiences since it first tore up the rule book in 1867. The last time I saw it was at the Arcola in Theatre an der Ruhr inventive two hander in German, (yep, I know what you are thinking). This could hardly be more different. The full resources of the Edinburgh Festival and National Theatre on the Olivier stage in a new, free adaptation by David Hare (with byline after Henrik Ibsen), directed by the venerable Jonathan Kent with sets and costumes from opera whizz Richard Hudson and with a cast of 25 led by James McArdle.

I confess I am still feeling my way into Peer Gynt and I recognise that David Hare here, whilst sticking closely to Ibsen’s plot, materially updated its content to satirise contemporary issues. I guess we should have expected nothing less from Mr Hare and his gift for the elegant, incisive and amusing turn of phrase remained undimmed. There are times when the exact target of Mr Hare’s ire became a little confused and/or indulgent but generally this is a text to savour.

Peer Gynt is a fantasist who creates his own narratives, his own view of his self, which, it turns out, is a long way from the reality even when he “succeeds”as well as when he “fails”. Pretty easy then to see why Mr Hare and Mr Kent would be attracted to this story of a life built on vacillation, invention and entitlement in our digital world of self-obsession and distortion at both the individual and societal level. As Ibsen trenchantly observed “if you lie, are you real?”. And the message of Peer, here Peter, Gynt is, if you are going to make stuff up and avoid knuckling down, go big. Who knows where you may end up. POTUS even? After all the play itself has generated its own reality with an annual festival, a sculpture park, a prize for best Norwegian thing of the year, numerous films, TV presentations, ballets, operas, musicals, Greig’s music and innumerable professional and amateur productions.

McArdle’s Gynt is a demobbed soldier returning to his Scottish village of Dunoon recounting tales of his bravery that bear and uncanny resemblance to seminal scenes from war movies. His Mum, Ann Louise Ross, puts up with his nonsense but the villagers, as we see at the wedding, are less forgiving. He kidnaps the bride, falls for Sabine (Anya Chalotra), a kind young immigrant woman, is banished, meets some line dancing cowgirls (Lauren Ellis-Steele, Hannah Visocchi, Dani Heron), gets shit-faced, bangs his head, dreams of a troll king (Jonathan Coy) and fathering a child with a his daughter (Tamsin Carroll), meets a gnomic chap called the Boyg (Nabil Shaban), wakes up, rejects a life with the faithful Sabine, movingly watches his Mum pass away, runs off, becomes an evil oligarch, a pilgrim, a fake guru and ends up chatting to the deranged inmates of an asylum. He heads for home, is shipwrecked, meets the aptly named Weird Passenger (Guy Henry) and finally has it out in the philosophical steakhouse with the Boyg and the learned Button-Moulder (Oliver Ford Davies), who teaches him the fundamental difference between self-absorption and self-realisation.

A revamped dream sequence, an inordinate amount of innovation from Richard Hudson, Mark Henderson (lighting), Christopher Shutt (sound), Polly Bennett (movement), Dick Straker (video), Paul Benzing (fight), Chris Fisher (illusions), and all their colleagues, original composition from Paul Englishby and musicians led by Kevin Amos, the discipline imposed by Mr Kent, a couple of intervals and a willing audience all pulled together to make this happen. Was it worth it? For me yes. I am not entirely sure if this Peer Gynt’s reach exceeds its grasp, (come to think of it that is sort of PG himself’s problem), but, thanks to largely to Mr Hare’s script and Mr McArdle’s brobdingnagian performance, (see what I have done there, referencing Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, another genre-bending fantasy satire to which novelists still look today), I now know what Ibsen was trying to tell us. And, as importantly , I spent 3.5 hours immersed in a bloody good yarn.

Which I see is not an opinion shared by many of the critics who variously seem to have had it in for Mr Hare, the production, the play, the set and the direction. Oh well. It takes all sorts.

White Teeth at the Kiln Theatre review ****

White Teeth

Kiln Theatre, 21st November 2018

I have never read Zadie Smith’s 2000 debut novel White Teeth. So I have no benchmark against which to set the adaptation by Stephen Sharkey, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, which is still showing at the Kiln. I gather it is something of a sprawling, hyperbolic tale of multi-cultural Britain across three generations beginning at the end of WWII, (though largely set on the doorstep of the Kiln), through the eyes of two, connected families. It is stuffed with plot, event, location, character and is both comic and tragic. 

Well if that is the case then I would say that the creative team here has done it proud. Not quite a musical, yet not entirely a play, there are times when the surreality of the story telling threatens to break the spell, but if you leave your critical eye, and ear, at home, don’t take it too seriously (as it doesn’t itself …),  and just go with with the exuberant flow you should have a great time. This feels and looks like community theatre, about the community in which it is performed, but, as is usually the case when Indhu Rubasingham is pulling the strings, making it look this spontaneous has, I would surmise, require a great deal of thinking, planning and rehearsing over its 5 years gestation. 

It doesn’t sound like the adaptation has been completely faithful to the book, chopping out strands and characters, and recasting the stream of events (as I gather did the 2002 TV adaptation). The story is told through a series of flashbacks from the perspective of millenial Rosie Jones (a droll Amanda Wilkin), the daughter of Irie (the superb, again, Ayesha Antoine), trying to find out about her “complicated” heritage, probably pregnant, in the present day. We still get the ornate intertwining of the Jones family, the bashful Archie (Richard Lumsden), and headstrong Clara (Nenda Neurer) with the Iqbal’s, peppery Samad (Tony Jayawardena) and forthright Alsana (Ayesha Dharker) and their two very different sons, volatile Millat (Assad Zaman) and studious Magid (Sid Sagar). And the posh Jewish-Catholic family up the hill, Marcus Chalfen (Philip Bird), Joyce (Naomi Frederick) and son Josh (Karl Queensborough) but we have assorted friends and colleagues along the way, notably local “character”, doomsayer and sometime deus ex machina, Mad Mary (the wonderful Michele Austin, who dives in with both feet). 

Unlikely suicide attempts, coin flips, parties, age differences, O’Connell’s, the improbable tank crew, a Nazi eugenicist, an inability to pull a trigger, the development of twins, religion, non-observance, affairs, fundamentalism, the worse named ever terror organisation, experiments on mice, the menage a trois, the unlikely denouement, dentistry. All this remains, but, and why not, now amplified with on stage band (Matthew Churcher on drums, Zoe Guest on guitar and Nanda Neurer, yes that’s right she is also playing Clara, on bass), 13 songs from composer Paul Englishby and multiple dance routines. 

Tom Piper’s set is a faithful line drawing, in exaggerated perspective, of the High Road, across which Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, and Lizzie Pocock’s projections, ring the changes. I  marvelled at the intricacy of Polly Bennett’s movement, which plays up the story’s slapstick strengths. With music director Chris Traves, and sound designer Carolyn Downing, this is, make no mistake, an A list creative team.

Is it easy to follow the story? Amazingly, given the activity, yes it is, in part thanks to some light-touch commentary and exposition when needed. Will it make you smile? Yes, unless you are some crotchety Daily Heil reader in which case I would politely us you to p*ss off out of our City. Are the songs a bit too pastiche, musical theatre, by pop culture numbers? Yes but their sly humour means you will forgive. Do some of the myriad of thoughts and ideas that Zadie Smith apparently threw out in her novel, notably the darker sides of the immigrant experience, get a little bit lost, or smothered? Yes I am guessing they do. Are the characters fully realised? No. But then this comes in at under two and a half hours so what do you expect. If you want Chekhov go elsewhere. 

But if you want theatrical story telling at its very best, homegrown magic realism, made by a team that really cares about what it has doing, brimful of energy, and you are proud of the cultural melting pot which is London, then look no further.

I don’t read much but White Teeth has now reserved a place in the summer holiday luggage. 

Imperium at the Gielgud Theatre review ****

cicero

Imperium I Conspirator and Imperium II Dictator

Gielgud Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, 18th July and 25th August 2018

I don’t read much. Don’t have the patience or the imagination. Much easier to get my kicks from the theatre, or from film, where other people can do all the hard work. Also suspect years of reading, writing and talking, to no great effect, in an office, for the greater good of neo-liberal capitalism, has shredded what grey matter I once had. Not like the SO. A voracious reader.

All of which means I have no view on the novelist Robert Harris. Never read anything he has written. Always had him down as a writer of pot-boiling political thrillers. Not even seen any of the film adaptions. On the strength of this majestic entertainment, an adaption of Mr Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero adapted by Mike Poulton, I think I might have missed a trick. It looks like Mr Harris’s books would be right up my street and he sounds like a terribly good bloke as well.

So next holiday reading now nailed down what about this RSC blockbuster? Apparently Mike Poulton had to be fairly judicious with what he took from the book, focussing on certain episodes in the maturity of the great orator’s life, but what he has conjured up, together with RSC AD Gregory Doran, is a fantastic slice of theatre. OK so there are times, as in some of Shakespeare’s weaker sections in the history plays, where the shuffling of characters on and off the stage, and the expository repeats, become a bit cumbersome, but generally Mr Poulton and Mr Doran have, through a variety of devices, ensured that, throughout the 7 hours or so of the two plays, we know exactly who is doing what to whom and, mostly, why. We also get an insight into the mind of one of history’s greatest thinkers, (or at least one of the greatest thinkers in a Western culture still in thrall to the Classical), and some universal lessons about the nature of politics and representation, and the symbiosis of word and deed in history, or at least the history of “great men”.

The plays also succeeds thanks to the casting of the two main protagonists. Richard McCabe is a thoroughly convincing Cicero, principled, courageous, sardonic, egocentric. Joseph Kloska as his secretary and our narrator Tiro, is equally impressive even if he has less to work with. There is more than a touch of the buddy movie about their central relationship. The audience is frequently dragged in to proceedings whether as the imagined Senate that Cicero and others address, the mob, or, breaking the wall, as conspirators in the events on stage. Not formally innovative but very satisfying in this kind of “one thing after another” history play. The political canvas, as we pass through Cicero’s election as Consul, his machinations with Catiline, Clodius, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and, finally, Octavian (Augustus), all to protect the values of the Republic and, take note, the rule of law, is contrasted with the domestic, Cicero’s dysfunctional relationships with wife, family and proteges. If you know your Roman history and/or your Shakespeare, this is a delight. Even if you don’t the touch is so light that it is a breeze to follow.

The staging, against the steps leading up to a pair of giant. mosaic eyes, in Anthony Ward’s set, is as dramatic as it needs to be when serious stuff is playing out, but there is a thread of humour, largely milked by the two leads which prevents it turning into a slog. Sometimes the laughs, and the delivery, edges a little bit towards the Up Pompeii, but this is a good thing in my book, and much better than the alternative of ponderous epic. Composer Paul Englishby and sound designer Claire Windsor have very adroitly managed to plot a way through this tonal warp and weft, not easy to sustain over this length of time. The same is true for Mark Henderson’s lighting composition. Indeed the entire creative crew should be lauded for their studied concentration. It would be easy to let things slide, or for the pace to ease up, when you have this much to show, but, if at any point my concentration wavered, it was my fault not theirs.

With this size of undertaking, 44 named parts and more walk-ons and crowd scenes beyond that, and spanning four decades, most of the cast were doubled up across the two plays. In addition to Cicero and Tiro, Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s put upon wife Terentia, Jade Croot as his unfortunate daughter Tullia and Paul Kemp as his bluff brother Quintus all stuck to one role, along with Peter de Jersey imperious, (no other adjective will do), Julius Caesar. When he came on all fake chummy to Cicero he captured exactly the air of a big man who knows he can’t be refused. Oliver Johnstone (after young Rufus in Part I) played Octavian with an air of even greater menace as he seized the opportunity given to him by his adoptive father Caesar Mk I. Joe Dixon seemed to relish the roles of, first, entitled aristo Catiline and then, a boozed up Mark Antony, as did Eloise Secker as the scheming Clodia and then Fulvia. This is, unfortunately, not a story with much to offer in the way of female roles, so it was a bit disconcerting, and unusual, to see so many white men on show. Still that was Rome, except that it wasn’t really.

Turning Cicero’s life, through the device of a biography written by his (originally) slave, mediated through millenia of scholarship, a writer of gripping fiction, and then on to the stage, was bound to throw up all sorts of questions about how we interpret the Ancients and how the “principles” they established still inform the world today, politics, democracy and drama, most prominently. Layer that into a fast moving biography, contemporary resonance, (for once not shoehorned in), and a history lesson, and you can see why the team here was pretty much on the case as soon as the ink had dried on the final part of Robert Harris’s trilogy, also entitled Dictator. History does not repeat itself, nor is there some deterministic arc to human progress, but two-bit, populistic tosspot geezers (always men) are ten a penny. Easy to spot, less easy to stop.

For all of you who get sniffy about the RSC and its contribution to the cultural fabric of this country, and, the world, I respectfully suggest you zip it. Here’s a great story, thrillingly told, neither too high or too low brow. Of course, as usual, by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing it and writing about it, it’s pretty much all over but I would hope this adaptation has an afterlife and I for one would love to see more “history” plays delivered in such confident, ambitious style. Like I say, if like me, you just don’t have the attention span to read a book or devote days to a box-set, then this is the thing for you. Proof positive that anyone who thinks theatre is a dreadful, long drawn out bore hasn’t tried and basically doesn’t know what they are talking about.