Botticelli in the Fire at Hampstead Theatre review **

Botticelli in the Fire

Hampstead Theatre, 20th November 2019

Us pensioners, well nearly in the case of the Tourist, as well as the real-dealers who haunt the matinees at which he largely frequents, are getting our eyes opened in Roxana Silbert’s first season as AD at the HT. Nothing fusty about the main stage offerings, what with scandal and corruption in China the subject of The King of Hell’s Palace, Cold War by proxy through chess in Ravens on now, and the threat from data capture and surveillance in Haystack to come. And this by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, a queer history set in a Renaissance Florence, plagued by, er, plague, centred on the artist Sandro Botticelli.

It starts well. Dickie Beau as Botticelli, who serves up as committed a performance as you could expect to see on this or any other stage, in skinny jeans and leather jacket, opens with a direct to audience confessional which broadsides the artist’s sybaritic outlook and the challenges his art and his sexuality present in a liberal state lurching towards repression. That is the message and James Cotterill’s costumes, and the artist studio set that soon emerges, do a grand job in bringing a contemporary resonance to that message, though don’t quite fill the space. Best of all this soliloquy is filthily funny. Mr Tannahill introduces Botticelli’s assistant, on Leonardo Da Vinci (a measured Hiran Abeysekera), and debauched bessie the vivacious Poggio Di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola).

Leonardo of course apprenticed in the workshop of Verrocchio, as did Botticelli briefly, and I am pretty sure Poggio is fictional, but the combination serves the purpose well and reflects the fact that both artists were accused of sodomy when the moral clampdown led by radical Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward). Before we get to the pivotal scene, again based on fact, where Botticelli trades some of his work, to be consumed in the Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, in return for immunity, we meet first Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba). She is the outspoken wife of political and banking big cheese, and Botticelli’s patron, Lorenzo de Medici (Adetomiwa Edun), who it transpires is Botticelli’s lover, Clarice not Lorenzo, though one can imagine. Ms Saba also playa the Venus in that painting which Lorenzo has commissioned.

Plenty to get your dramatic teeth into you would think. The problem is that Mr Tannahill’s modern vernacular text isn’t really up to the task. His legitimate determination to stick with the hedonistic tone established at the outset and reinforce his queering of history intention means the plot starts to get overwhelmed by the spectacle and the arguments that the characters advance, the purpose of art, sexual freedom, the exercise of political and religious power, the mobilisation of parochial populism against the liberal elite, become perfunctory. I suppose there were clues in the opening address, “this is not just a play, it’s an extravaganza”, and “the historians, I’m sorry, you can all go and fuck yourselves”.

Jordan Tannahill is plainly a talented young man, turning his hand to all many of multi-media collaborations, but a play, particularly one which takes as its starting point a lesson from history, (however this is re-imagined), needs a solid grounding in the text. I loved the look and the performances, performance artist Dickie Beau has bags of stage presence, but even he was unable to demand any sustained emotional or intellectual investment from the audience. Blanche McIntyre’s pliant direction, with help from the lighting and sound designs of Johanna Town and Christopher Shutt, engineers some arresting scenes, a camp dance routine, a choreographed squash game, the burning, but cannot compensate for the sparsity of character and contention. In the end, the play, like its protagonist, is so in love with itself that it doesn’t really look out to see what is going on around it.

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.

Rutherford and Son at the National Theatre review ****

Rutherford and Son

National Theatre Lyttleton, 16th May 2019

It is not difficult to see what Githa Sowerby’s photo feminist play from 1912, and brought back to life at the Royal Court by feminist theatre company Mrs Worthington’s Daughters in 1980, now has such a secure place in the repertory. Its characters and its dialogue simply have so much to say about what it was to be a woman, and indeed man, in the stifling atmosphere of Northern England at the turn of the C19. I don’t what to go all Marxist on you but the way the play examines the relationship between capital and labour, the cultural superstructure that is built atop it and patriarchal repression still looks astonishing even when compared to contemporary plays which mine the same territory.

It offers rounded characters despite, or maybe because of, the economy of dialogue and even has an absorbing plot centred on the “invention” of John Jr. However it does go on a bit, especially in the first hour set-up, and the action, contained within one room of the Rutherford house, can get, intentionally, claustrophobic. (Yet more nods to the master Ibsen).

Director Polly Findlay wisely offers us a little relief by taking a couple of intervals (prefacing each act, including the opening, with Northern folk songs from Kerry Andrew and Sarah Dacey) and jogging the pace along where possible. (I’ve just noticed the run time is down to 2 1/2 hours with interval so sounds like a bit of judicious streamlining has been administered). Lizzie Clachlan’s set however has no truck with abstraction: a perfectly realised slice of Victorian melancholia, emphasised by Charles Balfour’s gloomy lighting and (Ibsen-ian) rain. The setting is 1912 Tyneside. In real life Gita Sowerby’s father, like Rutherford, ran the family glass-making business in Gateshead, at a time when this small stretch of the Tyne dominated the global glass industry, before the family left for London in 1896 after the business went t*ts up. We are therefore treated to some full on Geordie accents, (courtesy of the voice and dialect work of Simon Money and Daniele Lydon), which, feel free to call me a patronising Southern twat, just occasionally got lost in translation from my perch at the back of the stalls.

Against this atmospheric backdrop the A list cast get properly stuck in to Githa Sowerby’s text. Now I don’t need to tell you how good an actor Roger Allam is. You are reading this so must have some interest in the theatre and the dramatic arts. Therefore you will know him from his innumerable stage roles, (a recent favourite was John Christie in The Moderate Soprano), his films, or off the telly, (the laconic Peter Mannion in The Thick Of It whose spirit he memorably exploited with a couple of the best one-liners in the whole of GoT as Illyrio Mopatis right at the beginning).

Anyway here he is magnificent. Daddy Rutherford is a cantankerous, despotic bully who is prepared to sacrifice all of life’s pleasures and his family, John Jr (Sam Troughton), Richard (Harry Hepple) and Janet (Justine Mitchell), on the altar of his business and, by implication, his legacy. Or is he? Whilst I am not defending the old sh*t I do think that showing some sign of deeply buried humanity and empathy, as Mr Allam did, yields dividends. Even Rutherford presumably loved his wife and kids once and, as his final promise to Mary (Anjana Vasan) shows, there is some feeling even in this ostensibly commercial transaction. Having to hand over control of the company he built to the bank and a Board has only served to make him work harder, grow tighter and turn his autocracy on those nearest to him. But he is doomed to lose the control he has over his family, mirroring the loss of control of his company. An alienated capitalist disfigured by profit in a society that will move away from him. Very clever.

And, dare I say, these three kids, whilst all having their reasons, are bloody annoying in their own way. Just to be clear I am not imposing some sort of privileged male revisionism on the play. Just that, by exposing the subtlety of the text, Polly Findlay got me to thinking about the play in a way that I had not after seeing Northern Broadsides version with the inimitable Barrie Rutter in the lead in 2013. Love has been squeezed out of the house, as Janet memorably observes, no doubt about that, but the idea that it might have been different once just made me admire the play even more. Githa Sowerby, even when her masterpiece first appeared, to great acclaim, was patronised, as all women were at that time, so the last thing her memory needs is some fat bloke, whose only qualification is that he has seen a few plays recently, upticking, but I was genuinely gobsmacked by just how much depth there is in these characters even beyond what I had remembered from a couple of previous viewings. Everyone thinks they can make everyone else happier in the play. Everyone spectacularly fails to do so.

Sam Troughton is also one of my favourite stage actors, most recently as everybloke Danny opposite Justine Mitchell’s Laura in David Eldridge’s whip-smart Beginning or, seizing the opportunity in what was otherwise a slightly pedestrian affair, as the various, flawed, men-children in Nina Raine’s Stories. His John Jr is desperate from the off. Desperate for Daddy’s approval even as he hates the f*cker, wasting his education, running off to that London, marrying Mary who is “beneath” him, running back to the family home, seeking to extract his birthright through his “invention”, venting his frustration on his own family. The Ibsen-ian sins of the father are listed on the weak, vacillating, quasi-hysterical, son. It was heart-breaking, (well maybe I exaggerate a bit, it’s just a play), to watch his continued self-deception even as Mary was shuffling him out the door as he set off once again to fail to seek fame and fortune.

Justine Mitchell is another brilliant actor who invariably stands out in whatever she appears in. See Beginning above but also, for me, in Anne Washburn’s opus Shipwreck, in Vivienne Franzmann’s Bodies, in the Donmar’s Arturo Ui and in the NT’s Plough and the Stars.. Hell she can even make sense of Restoration comedy. There are multiple layers of bitter, ironic resentment in her Janet because of the way she has been treated by her father and the Victorian/Edwardian patriarchy but this is still a powerful, sensual woman as we see in the scenes with Joe Armstrong’s blunt Martin, whose loyalty to Rutherford, (which itself maybe be the false consciousness of the oppressed), is put to the test. The release when Janet “confesses” to the affair, and Rutherford boots her out, following hot on the heels of Mrs Henderson’s (Sally Rodgers) p*ssed up tirade against Rutherford for the way he treated her son, is immense.

Harry Hepple as the younger son Dick, a curate, a profession old Rutherford regards with sneering disdain, who determines to escape to another parish in Southport, has less to play with but also makes the most of it. Anjana Vasan, so, so good in An Adventure at the Bush, and with smaller roles in Rebecca’s Frecknall’s lauded production of Summer and Smoke and the Young Vic Life of Galileo, represents the future as Mary, exercising her agency and opinion from the start in marked contrast to Barbara Marten’s aunt Ann, who is almost parodic as a woman whose behaviour and thinking is entirely dictated by the archaic values of the “society” around her.

Marvellous play, perfectly realised by a director who trusts the author, with a cast, to borrow the literary cliche, at the peak of its powers. OK, so much like its characters, it can’t quite escape its Edwardian roots, three acts, unity of time, place and action, painstaking exposition, which requires commitment from you the audience but once drawn in there is enough in the climaxes in the story, and especially, the detail of the context, to keep the committed theatre nut as happy as a sandboy. (A phrase from the C18 I gather which refers to the lashed up lads who were paid in drink to deliver and spread sand on the floor of pubs to soak up the various forms of sh*t. A much vivid indictment of the evils of unregulated capitalism is tricky to imagine).

So if this sounds like your sort of thing then you shouldn’t hesitate, there’s plenty of tickets left. If it doesn’t probably best not to be brave here. The Tourist though, having missed the Orange Tree revival of Githa Sowerby’s other major play, The Stepmother, is now firmly on the look-out for a chance to rectify.

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. 

The Village at Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

village-333070_1920

The Village

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 27th September 2018

One of the many advantages of the idle life of culture is the opportunity to savour the coincidences that it routinely throws up. I see a play, Losing Venice, about the end of Empire, written in a style which apes the dramatists of the Spanish Golden Age. (Losing Venice at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***). A couple of days later I see a play, An Adventure, about the immigrant’s journey out of India. (An Adventure at the Bush Theatre review ****). The next day I see a play, The Village, drawn from the most famous play from arguably the most famous playwright of the Spanish Golden Age, Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Veja, recast in modern rural India, still bearing the scars of post-colonialism. Learn, enjoy, repeat.

Lope de Veja’s 1619 story, based on a real incident in the village of the same name  in Castile in 1476, is pretty much guaranteed to get the pulse racing. A tale of honour, justice, reputation and chastity as so many of the Golden Age plays were, though here slightly subverted, which accounts for its continuing relevance. The women of the village, unable to stomach any more abuse from the local army chief, rise up to collectively kill him. They refuse to incriminate each other saying only that “Fuenteovejuna did it”. April de Angelis, who make such a fine job of adapting Elena Ferrante’s quartet My Brilliant Friend for the Rose Kingston stage (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****), sticks pretty close to the plot of the original whilst offering up a text peopled with recognisably human characters. And, with a swagger that largely worked for me, much of the text is written in verse, which adds rhythm and pace to the story.

This, together with Nadia Fall’s kinetic direction and some top class performances especially from Anya Chalotra as Jyoti, and in his own villainous way, Art Malik, are what turns this from what might have been a sullen melodrama, into something altogether more supple and uplifting. The production might have benefitted from a bigger stage to accommodate Joanna Scotcher’s sloping set, and a little more technical sophistication, but, if this is the harbinger of things to come at Stratford Royal Theatre East under Nadia Fall, and the 18/19 season has great potential, then maybe SRTE can become a destination theatre as it was in the glory days of Joan Littlewood (who staged Fuenteovejuna in 1955), rather than an occasional, one-off hit machine (like Five Guys Named Moe).

No need to take my word for it. To save BD from sitting around all day in her PJ’s in front of a screen (though justified by an imminent return to uni) I dragged her alone. Only marginally easier to impress than her Mother, she agreed that this was a powerful, and satisfying, piece of theatre. And, even more extraordinary FKD, who has reason to know, and a bunch of her friends, gave it the thumbs up. Lopa de Veja’s original, whilst not directly informed by Catholic oppression, was a response to the violence of the Inquisition. AdA’s update similar doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to its portrayal of the BJP and the rise of Hindu nationalism.

The rural village, Sahaspur, is getting on with the business of life with Jyoti, daughter of of the joint mayor, Ramdev (Neil D’Souza), the bashful subject of the ardent affections of local Muslim lad Farooq (Scott Karim). He is egged on by comic sidekick Mango (Ameet Chana), she by no-nonsense buddy Panna (Rina Fatania). Both eke out plenty of laughs. Accents are more Bradford than Kolkata. When the sadist Inspector Gangwar (Art Malik) turns up, with soldier sidekicks Ved and Gopi, to fix the election for privileged BJP scion Vihaan (Naeem Hayat), the villagers are cowered, and then outraged, after he rapes Jyoti. The election is contested by Ishani (Sudha Bhuchar) for Congress with adviser Mekhal (Arian Nik) in tow, and it is she who is sent to investigate the Inspector’s murder.

A gripping tale for sure. And Nadia Fall’s high energy direction, with movement from Polly Bennett (especially striking in the revenge scene), lighting from Paul Pyant, sound from Helen Atkinson and composer Niraj Chang (with live on-stage music and Hindi songs courtesy of Japit Kaur), really brings it to life. Yet it will still make you angry that even now this kind of oppression is commonplace, and that horrific sexual violence in India (and elsewhere) is still legitimised by power. The mechanics of the ending are a little less than credible, but no matter, the message of successful resistance is the right one.