My favourite lockdown theatre so far and to look forward to

If you are, like me, a well-to-do theatre nut, missing the real thing, trying, unlike me, to fit in the panicking, worrying, exercising, zooming, reading, binge watching, baking, eating, on-line shopping, goal-satisfying, caring, and maybe working, then you have probably already been overwhelmed by the streaming opportunities already served up in the last few weeks. This plethora is easy enough to track via the MSM and WWW but less easy to watch with certainty of satisfaction what with all these other calls on your time.

Which is where the Tourist comes in. A professional loafer, all he has had to do is swap a seat in the many London, and elsewhere, theatres for his own armchair, saving tine, and a few quid on transport, which can usefully be donated to those very theatres whose need is greatest. Of course, however well filmed, these broadcasts are no substitute for the real thing, as I am sure you will have realised. Theatre is a collective enterprise, a shared experience, which comes alive with performance.

Even so there have been, and there are set to be, some absolutely belting productions coming to a screen right next to you. (OK some some have come and gone but all the more reasons not to miss what is in store). Here are some of my favourites, (just theatre though I have been gingerly dipping into the bucketload of opera that is also available). So dump those Netflix box sets and get cultured. Oh. and don’t be shy about turning on the subtitles. Not just for the foreign stuff. This is your chance to watch Shakespeare with all the text and nail the plots so that next time you can nod or chuckle knowingly at points of verse detail and savour the Bard’s, and the creative team’s, extraordinary insight into the human condition. Thus becoming a true luvvie.

(N.B. No order implied here. Just chronological and reflecting the fact that I can’t seem to format the list in WordPress. Those who have had the misfortune to work with the Tourist will be painfully aware of his technological shortcomings, most tellingly when they are stood at his shoulder, eyes rolling, as he adopts the most inefficient strategy possible for manipulating information on screen).

Best watches so far

  1. Fragments. Beckett by Brook. From Theatre Bouffes des Nord. Rough for Theatre I/Rockaby/Act Without Words II/Neither/Come and Go. Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne’s collection of Beckett miniatures, from a cast of specialists, Jos Houben, Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni. If you thought Beckett was a load of miserable, impenetrable twaddle, think again. This is hilarious and never outstays its welcome. Well maybe not true for Rough for Theatre I. Still available on their Vimeo channel.
  2. It’s True. It’s True, It’s True by Breach Theatre. So I finally had tickets for this at the Barbican with the intention of taking BD along. So very pleased to see the production popped up on line when the tour had to be cancelled. Had heard good things about it and I can confirm that it delivers on its promise. The Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery has been postponed though I gather one fine day us Brits will still get our chance to survey the work of this most talented Caravaggisti/feminist icon. Her story and her influence are undeniable though the power and beauty of the paintings takes your breath away even before you get into the interpretation. Bar the Capodimonte in Naples you have to get about a bit to see many of her 60 0dd attributed works though so this UK first is set to be unmissable. Anyway you culture vultures will already know all about her. In ITx3 Breach Theatre, Billy Barrett, Ellice Stevens, Ellie Claughton and Dorothy Allen-Pickard, here joined by cast members Kathryn Bond, Sophie Steer and Harriet Webb, convert the verbatim Latin and Italian texts of AG’s 1612 rape trial into modern vernacular, and turn it into hard-hitting drama, complete with lessons on key paintings. It’s brilliant. It was on I Player for a bit but is now available elsewhere: try the New Diorama site. And slip the company a few quid so that they can keep making theatre of this quality.
  3. The Crucible. Old Vic Theatre. I missed Yael Farber’s lauded production from the Old Vic in 2014 with a cast led by Richard Armitage and Anna Madeley. Ms Farber’s moody atmospherics and precise point-making don’t always work. Here they do though. faultlessly. OK so it is one of my favourite ever plays but this is the best thing I have seen in recent weeks. 8 quid to rent from Digital Theatre but worth every penny.
  4. An Enemy of the People. Schaubuhne Berlin. And here is the second best watch. SB has been extremely generous with its offering even for those of us no German speakers. What with Beware of Pity, Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s take on Orlando which couldn’t make it to the Barbican, Thomas Ostermeier’s full on Hamlet with Lars Eidimger doing his best bonkers gurning and, most recently, TO’s Hedda Gabler, with Katharina Schuttler brilliant as a bored child-woman Hedda. Best of the lot though was the wunderkind director’s take on another Ibsen classic, An Enemy of the People. Dialogue, even in translation, utterly contemporary without missing a beat from HI’s argument. Wild Duck might just edge it for best Ibsen ever in my book but, with AEOTP, as a satire on the complexity of morality, despite, or perhaps even because of, the alarming twist in Stockman’s public positioning, few writers have come close before or since. Done properly all Ibsen should knot up stomach and mind and Ostermeier and company cut straight to the chase here. Just wish I could understand the debate between audience and cast, in character, when the fourth wall is cracked for the Act IV town meeting scene. The production was banned in China when it toured in 2018. Nuff said. Unfortunately all these SB productions are one night only affairs but I urge you to keep your eye on the programme.
  5. Frankenstein. National Theatre. Missed this in 2011 so ecstatic when NT added it to their list. You might disagree with the balance of the themes from Mary Shelley’s original which Nick Dear’s adaptation focussed on, and with the somewhat episodic structure, but hey you have to agree that Danny Boyle can put on a show. And the lads Cumberbatch and, only marginally less so, Lee Miller, know their way round a stage. The rest of the NT At Home season, The Twelfth Night, with that performance from Tasmin Greig, Sally Cookson’s Jane Eyre and One Man, Two Guvnors, (though it did lose a bit from live stage to screen I admit), all delighted, and I am about to catch up with Antony and Cleopatra, but they count for less as I had seem them all in the flesh as it were.

There have been a few other highlights. Caryl Churchill’s menacing Far Away from the Donmar which we missed live, Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott with Sophie Melville available on Digital Theatre, Simon Godwin’s RSC production of Two Gentleman of Verona, (SG may just be the best Shakespearean director right now), available on that Marquee TV, Imitating the Dog’s labour of love with their Night of the Living Dead REMIX, (available on a pay what you like basis), though the filming of the filming of the acting of a film dilutes its impact a little, and the RSC Richard II with David Tennant, also on Marquee TV. Oh and last night’s revisit of Christopher Luscombe’s RSC Much Ado About Nothing, (or Love’s Labours Won as he would have it), on BBC I Player. All did the business.

On the watch-list

What next? A few recommendations first based on prior watches, so the Tourist can confirm their quality.

  1. The Phyllida Lloyd/Harriet Walter all female Donmar Shakespeare trilogy (The Tempest, Henry IV and Julius Caesar) from the Donmar. No need to enact the kettling pre-performance that was feature of the Kings Cross version. Digital Theatre or Marquee TV take your pick.
  2. Melly Still’s RSC Cymbeline also on both DT and MTV. Ms Still, with her heart on sleeve, gender switching, state of the nation, physical theatre remake manages to, just about, make something out of one of big Will’s more puzzling creations.
  3. The Encounter from Complicite. The genius who is Simon McBurney takes you on a full on sensory journey into the heart of darkness. This was, literally, made for headphones so should convert well in the at-home experience. On the Complicite website from 15th May for a week.
  4. A Doll’s House from the Lyric Hammersmith. For one night only on the 20th May on the Lyric’s YouTube channel. Tanika Gupta’s resetting of Ibsen’s proto-feminist classic to 1879 Calcutta lends depth and resonance.
  5. Barber Shop Chronicles from the NT. All of the next 4 NT offerings look unmissable to me. If you haven’t seen Inua Ellam’s vibrant BSC you are in for a treat. On the NT YT channel from 14th May.
  6. This House from the NT. If you liked James Graham’s Quiz on ITV recently then don’t miss what he does best. Recent(ish) political history as comedy. TH tracks the minority Labour government in the 1970s showing how our political class is doomed to repeat itself. From 28th May.

And here are the pick of the productions that are new to me and about which I am very excited.

  1. A Streetcar Named Desire from the Young Vic. From 21st May for a week through the NT At Home initiative this is Benedict Andrew’s sprawling interpretation of Tennessee Williams’s magnum opus from 2014 which, inexplicably, I was too late to get a ticket for and, idiotically, dismissed watching in the cinema.
  2. Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse. Ditto the above. Missed out because of work and other stuff and have been desperate to see this ever since. Coriolanus is just one of my absolute favourite Shakespeare’s and Josie Rourke’s economical take has sone fella called Tom Hiddleston in the title role and a bonkers-ly luxuriant cast around him. From 4th June vis the NT again. I cannot wait.
  3. Ghosts from the Almeida. Available on Digital Theatre. This is the Richard Eyre production with the peerless Lesley Manville, alongside Jack Lowden and Will Keen, which belts through Ibsen’s grimmest family tale in 90 minutes. That’s my happy place evening viewing sorted.

Enjoy. And donate. So that the theatre will still be there when we get out of this pickle.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida Theatre review ****

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

Almeida Theatre, 9th January 2019

Vain, frivolous, self pitying, introverted. Richard II doesn’t come across too well at the beginning of this play, Shakespeare’s first instalment of his histories that chart the origins of the “War of the Roses” and end with the death of Richard III and accession of Henry VII. Yet by the close of Richard II, acutely aware of his own fate, we see, not a different person, but a man who finally realises how his actions, as well as those of his aristocratic rivals, brought him to where he is. The distinction in Joe Hill-Gibbons’s quick-fire take on his tragedy is that his nemesis, Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV, travels in the entirely opposite direction, secure in his right to reclaim his titles, and then the throne, on returning from banishment, he quickly descends into a vacillating arbitrator of facile dispute.

The play highlights the fact that political power often overwhelms those that seek to wield it, as competing interests compromise consensus, a valuable lesson for our troubled times. Kings, and their democratic equivalents, are those that divvy up the prizes, once land, now patronage, to lords and their modern equivalents. These may owe allegiance but they can get mighty uppity if they feel taken for granted or hard done by. The joy, and instruction, of Shakespeare’s history plays, which examine the delicate balance between those that lead and those that keep them there, is that the deadly embrace continues to this day. Only now, we, the hot-polloi, have the right to stick our oar in as well. Apparently the “will of the people”, even if no-one knows what it is, least of all the people, is now the only source of legitimacy. Hmmmm.

In order to get to the heart of this tragedy though the production does take a few liberties with us the audience. First off it starts at the end, kind of, with Simon Russell Beale’s Richard II pronouncing “I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world.” Famous soliloquy dispatched what follows might be, TV drama style, his flashback.

Richard II is written entirely in patterned verse, (as are the first and third parts of Henry VI and the ropey King John), even down to the gardeners who get to comment, memorably, on the state of the country under their warring betters. The verse remains intact through the 100 minutes of the production, (with a few pointed additions), but its rhythms take something of a back seat. Especially in the first half hour or so, when the lines are delivered at breakneck speed. Not a problem for Simon Russell Beale as Richard II or Leo Bill as Bolingbroke (whose lines are deliberately less florid and more direct than Richard’s). However one or two of the less seasoned members of the cast snatched a little, noticeably in the arbitration, tournament and banishment scenes. The rhythm settles down by the time we get to John of Gaunt’s lament (“this sceptred isle …. now bound in with shame … hath made a shameful conquest of itself”; the speech is not about how great we are but how we manage to f*ck it all up, that, and a couple of lines of blatant anti-Semitism). Even then you have to keep your ears open and your wits about you.

There is also, (not unreasonably since, as events pile up, it really works as a conceit, especially when combined with some inspired choreography), a lot of character doubling and more. The Tourist always recommends that Shakespeare is best consumed following a little homework into context and synopsis. A quick Google on the way in is all that is required, as witness BUD who was my guest here, even for those who think they know the plot backwards. Ironing out your Aumerle (here Martins Imhangbe) from your Carlisle (Natalie Klamar) from your York (John Mackay) from your Northumberland (Robin Weaver) always pays dividends. Knowing which aristo is on which side has historically always been a sound real life lesson as it happens: knowing why is a bonus.

Fans of “historical” Shakespeare, whatever that is, are also in for a bit of a shock here. ULTZ’s set is a stark, bare cube, comprised of brushed metal panels riveted together, topped by a frosted glass ceiling. It serves very well as prison cell, less figuratively as castle, garden or jousting field. As a way of showing how power plays out in claustrophobic rooms and crushes those who exercise it, it does the business though thank you very much, and, remember, we might be in the prison of Dickie’s mind anyway.

This set works especially well when combined with James Farncombe’s bold lighting design. JH-G had a huge cast on his last outing and a magnificent recreation of a Soho drinking den at the close of WWII courtesy of Lizzie Clachlan and a fat lot of good that did him. It was awful. Though that was more the play’s fault than his. Here he is on much firmer ground as he was with his excellent Midsummer Night’s Dream and measure for Measure at the Young Vic. His fascination with soil continues, there are buckets of earth, water and blood lined up and neatly notated at the back of the stage. I like to think they symbolised “this England”: they certainly left SRB needing a hot shower post curtain call.

Of the supporting cast I was particularly taken with Saskia Reeves, as I always am, who got to be the argumentative Mowbray, the unfortunate Bushy, (with Martins Imhangbe playing Bagot, his head-losing mate), the other favourite Green, and the Duchess of York, and Joseph Mydell, a composed Gaunt as well as Bolingbroke sidekick Willoughby. Various explicit nobles on both sides are excised from this reading, as is the Queen amongst others, and, should a fill-in be required, out stepped one of the cast from the “chorus”-like crowd. Brutal it may be for purists, but in terms of reinforcing the hurtling momentum, very effective.

Leo Bill once again shows why JH-G has faith in his Shakespearean abilities, but it is Simon Russell Beale who carries the weight of the production on his shoulders. How he ensures that we not only take in but understand the impact of every line he utters is a wonder, especially in the return to England and Flint Castle surrender scenes. Even when he wasn’t dashing out his metaphor and simile strewn lines in double quick time, and wasn’t soaked through covered in mud, this was a cracking performance. The fact that he was, and that we can still savour Shakespeare’s language, and sense the difference between the body politic and the body natural, (the, er, embodiment of the medieval king), shows again why he is now unarguably our greatest living Shakespearean actor.

In this performance Richard’s early, flawed, decision-making seems less vanity or indecisiveness and more high-handed hauteur, the desire just to get the job done regardless of consequences. I’m the king, by divine right, so of course I know what to do. There isn’t much in the way of Christ-like martyrdom here as there was in David Tennant’s guilt-ridden 2013 RSC take or in Ben Whishaw’s petulant Hollow Crown reading. No white robes or flowing mane of hair here. The fact that SRB is “too old”, the real Dickie was in his early thirties for the last two years of his reign when the play is set, and that he, and Leo Bill, look nothing like the generally accepted take on the characters, only adds to the universality of the message.

The early years of the actual Richard’s reign weren’t too jolly for him by all accounts. Acceding to the throne aged just 10, with a bunch of nobles preferring a series of ruling councils to a regency under Uncle John (of Gaunt), the Hundred Years War with France not going England’s way, Scotland and Ireland playing up and labour growing its share of the prosperity pot at the expense of landed capital (the Black Death had led to a sharp spike in agricultural wages). In 1381 the Peasants even had the temerity to Revolt. By now though the young king was throwing his weight around but many of the entitled aristos, (whom we meet in the play), didn’t hold with the company he kept and in 1387 the so called Lords Appellant, (Gloucester, Surrey, Warwick, Bolingbroke and Mowbray), seized control and one by one, tried and disposed of Richard’s favourites.

By 1389 Richard was back in control, with Gaunt’s oversight, and, for a few years, got on with the job. But he never forgot what his opponents had done and, come 1397 he started taking revenge, notably, on Gloucester, his uncle, who he had bumped off. This is often where the play steps off with the King’s bloody guilt informing the four short years before his death, probably by starvation, after Bolingbroke’s usurpation.

Richard was allegedly a good looking lad, see above, who believed absolutely in his divine right to rule at the expense of the uppity Lords. He wasn’t a warrior, rather a man of art and culture, aloof and surrounded by a close knit retinue. As with all the big players in the history plays, our perception of Richard II, is though to some degree shaped by the Bard’s not always favourable publicity (that’s if you have any view at all of course). Via his favourite contemporary historian Raphael Holinshed. There was apparently a time when historians thought Richard was insane: now the wisdom is that he had some sort of personality disorder that contributed to his downfall.

Mind you if you were locked up in solitary confinement you might well lose the plot. There is an extract in the programme taken from Five Unforgettable Stories from Inside Solitary Confinement by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway from Solitary Watch. Solitary Watch tracks the estimated more than 80.000 prisoners in the US system held in solitary confinement on an average day. Here four prisoners eloquently describe their experience. Left me speechless. 80,000. That’s not a typo. Google it.

So another success from the Almeida hit factory, another masterclass from Simon Russell Beale and another validation of Joe Hill-Gibbons radical(ish) way with Shakespeare. BUD, whose first exposure this was to the history plays, agreed. Mind you there isn’t much in this world that he can’t size up within 5 minutes of first introduction.

There is probably a case for JH-G slowing down proceedings just a little, another 15 minutes wouldn’t have been a stretch, just to let the poetry work a bit more magic, give a little more complexity to Bolingbroke and the nobles, and draw out more from the themes. And the stylised, expressionist visual concepts won’t, (and haven’t), pleased everyone. But as a coruscating denunciation of the perennial failure of the political class, you want see much better on a stage even if it was written over 420 years ago.