Life and Fate at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

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Life and Fate

Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 20th May 2018

The Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg was founded in 1944 and is one of just three European theatre companies to have been awarded the title Theatre of Europe from the EU. (No I didn’t grasp the geography of that either). The company has been led by Lev Dodin since 1983 and is renowned for its Russian adaptations of theatrical classics and for its examination of the paradoxes and realities of culture, society, life and politics in the Soviet Union. The relationship between culture and government in Russia continues to fascinate me and I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to see Theatre with a capital T come to London.

Life and Fate was premiered in Paris in 2007 and is based on the epic novel by Vasily Grossman, pictured above, which documents the life of the Shtrum family through the 1930s and WWII in Soviet Russia. Vasily Grossman was born in 1905, a Jew in Ukraine, and initially trained and worked as a chemical engineer. He took up writing full time after his one of his short stories In the Town of Berdichev attracted attention. In the 1930s he just about managed to stay the right side of the authorities, in contrast to many of his peers, but in 1938 his wife was taken into custody following the arrest of her ex-husband. He became a renowned war correspondent and was one of the first to enter Ukraine following its liberation, only to find his mother, and indeed the whole Jewish population of his hometown Berdichev, had been murdered by the Nazis. Ukrainian complicity in the genocide was covered up.

This personal history provided the material for Life and Fate which VG sought to get published in the thaw that followed Stalin’s death. However the manuscript was seized by the KGB and pronounced unpublishable for at least 200 years. After VG’s death in 1964 a secret copy was smuggled out and eventually published in Switzerland in 1980 and, finally, following Glasnost, in Russia though still with some passages removed.

It is then a Book with a capital B of immense significance. It is also a whopper extending to near 800 pages, echoing War and Peace. In another of the now not uncommon marital coincidences chez Tourist the SO has it near the top of her to-read list having been recently drawn into the world of investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who also shines a light on Soviet and post Soviet life, albeit more recent decades. Unusually it was me that recommended her books. The cultural division of labour, with the SO doing the hard work of reading and writing, and me the easy jobs of seeing and hearing, art, theatre and music, is thus alive and kicking in the Tourist household.

Condensing down this work into three and a half hours of theatre must have been some undertaking, taking time (3 years in fact), effort, research and immersion. The play starts in 1943 after a prominent physicist, Viktor Shtrum, returns to Moscow and the Institute he works in. He lives in a flat with wife Lyuda, and schoolgirl daughter Nadya. Lyuda’s son from her first marriage, Tolya, has been killed in the war. Her first husband Abarchuk is a political prisoner in the gulag along with Krymov, the ex-husband of Lyuda’s sister Zhenya who comes to stay with the Shtrums.

The Soviet labour camp also houses another political prisoner Monidze and criminals Barkhatov and Ugarov. Their plight is contrasted with the prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp, Mostovskoy, Ikonnikov, Ershov and Osipov, overseen by SS officer Liss. There are scenes set in the Battle of Stalingrad with tank Colonel Norikov who is Zheya’s lover, his number two Getmanov and a runner Vershikov, and in the Moscow Institute with colleagues of varying political committment, Sevastnov, Sokolov, Shishakov and Kovchenko.

Fortunately there is no doubling up and the programme notes are excellent in providing context. For the scenes do deliberately mesh into each other, with some very well choreographed rearrangement of the set, and actors from one location often remain on stage when others take the lead. The chronology is also fluid and the presence of Victor’s dead mother Anna is made flesh in the most moving laments in between key scenes.

All this is intended to point up the equivalence between the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and in this the play overwhelmingly succeeds. Viktor is Jewish and this leads to his ostracism and expulsion from the Institute as the policies of nationalism and anti-semitism infect Stalin’s regime in ways that mirror the more overt ideology of its enemy. If Viktor repents and confesses he might be able to save himself and his family, and continue with his work, but only if he abandons the truth and his identity.

And then along comes the fickle finger of fate as Stalin himself rings up and “wishes him success in his work”. It seems Viktor is the key to unlocking a nuclear bomb for the Soviets. He is safe. Life goes on. Except that the horror around him doesn’t stop. And Viktor is eventually faced with signing a letter that he knows will condemn dissidents to death.

It is an immense journey which in many ways is cleverly captured on this smallish proscenium stage. BUT it is very Actorly and very Speechy. Declamation is the go to style of delivery and this, compounded by the subject, makes for a gruelling evening. I was fortunately promoted to a much better seat, sightlines being untenable in my normal cheapskate TRH perch This exaggerated the staginess and meant a fair bit of my attention was lavished on the sur-titles for Francine Yorke’s translation. Now, I hear you cry, what did you expect going to see an epic set in the darkest period of the C20 delivered in Russian. Elf the Musical? Well no, I get that this did, to all intents and purposes, do exactly what it said on the can but I do think the production, not the material of course, tended to the overly grandiose.

I would find it invidious to pick out any of the cast or creative team for particular praise though you cannot deny the sheer presence of Sergey Kuryshev as Viktor and Tatiana Shestakova as Anna. I was also struck by Daria Rumyanantseva as Nadia, Alexander Koshkarev as Shishakov and Oleg Dmitriev as Liss but like I say this is large-scale, and I mean large, ensemble acting which I rarely see.

I feel unworthy saying this but the point of this blog is to record what I see, hear and learn. I have no doubt though that the next time one of the major Russian theatre companies comes to London I will be there. As with the visit of the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia last year (Smile Upon Us Lord review at the Barbican Theatre review ***) the style may not grab me, the stories obviously do. And I am grateful to those who financed this visit. Anything that promotes mutual understanding of our histories must surely be valuable.

A (flawed) guide to London theatres

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When I was a young teenager I took to making up some very odd games. I wasn’t lonely, with a handful of very good friends as I remember, and my very earliest encounters with the ladies were amongst my most successful, since my true nature, an awkward mix of the needy and the misanthropic, had yet to be revealed. I was something of a swot, what you might call bookish and then, as now, was sometimes a little confused by what others did or said in social situations. But definitely not on any sort of spectrum I reckon, beyond that of the awkward 16 year old lad with lank, long hair, (despite the advent of punk), robust flares, bumfluff and the ability to make a pint of lager last a whole evening.

But enacting an entire Subbuteo World Cup, sixteen teams, (these were the days when FIFA could just about control its financial appetites – if you want to see what the future, actually present, of human “governance” looks like, like no further than the masters of the beautiful game), then quarters, semis and a final. All stats carefully recorded in a special notebook. All done on my own. That’s right. I played with myself, (no titters at the back please). Which meant that, whilst pretending to myself that this was an entirely objective exercise exercise, I got to see England play Holland in the final. England because that’s the fiction that is most deep-rooted in my psychology. But Holland won. Retribution for the injustice meted outed in the “real” World Cup final in 1974, (and, though I did not know it, but somehow feared it, again in 1978), and an early indication of my rabid pro-Europeanism.

Sounds a bit weird right. Except that PlayStations hadn’t been invented. So I like to think of myself as an early adopter, not a sad adolescent.

Anyway responsibility, albeit of a most shrunken kind, has meant I have had to let go of such childish things but I still like a good list, dictated by me, which purports to be based on “facts” but is in fact nothing of the kind. Though, as you know, (tautology alert), there are no such things as facts, only theories yet to be unproven, and “information” is mediated, and mutilated, by both provider and consumer. Do not believe anything, least of all if it comes out of your own head. Proud to be a sceptic.

So you can safely ignore what follows.

Since theatre is my current passion, I thought I would tot up the ratings that I had given the entertainments I had enjoyed over the past three years, derive some averages, adjust for frequencies and thereby show what London theatres reliably put on the best work. Thereby confirming my own biases, with my own biased ratings, mashed through a filter of spurious statistical analysis. Just the kind of woeful shite that organisations, opinion formers and your governors do everyday apparently on your behalf.

So here’s my top ten (well eleven actually). Turns out that it is a proven fact (!) that the Almeida under Rupert Goold is the best of the bunch, the Royal Court is a thing of wonder, especially when you reflect on the fact that the work is almost entirely new, and the National Theatre under Rufus Norris is not, repeat not, undergoing any sort of existential crisis, despite what some would say. The trouble with all those right-wing cultural commentators is that they are only happy when they have something to moan about; they can only argue the negative. I hope the Theatre Royal Haymarket continues its more enlightened programming under the new owners. The Young Vic remains the most exciting major theatre, even if that means a few misfires, and the one where I learn the most. The Barbican benefits from the RSC and the International companies that come through the door. The Donmar rarely drops a bollock but here you really have to be quick at the gate to get a seat. The Arcola and The Orange Tree get my vote for best of the fringe, and the Gate for those with more adventurous tastes. The Old Vic doesn’t always belt it out of the park but is pretty reliable.

In fact overall I doubt there is anything here that would surprise the seasoned theatre-goer. thus adding a nice line in utter pointlessness to the sins of commission I have already committed in compiling, and worst still, writing up this list.

There are a couple of lessons though for the more casual consumer of drama. Firstly, do not think for one moment that watching a film or series on a tiny screen can in any way match the thrill of live theatre, and secondly, if you want to avoid being the sap who comments that “I would liked to have seen that but it was all sold out before the reviews appeared … ” or end up paying three times the price for a painfully uncomfortable seat in some West End mausoleum, then sign yourself up to the Almeida, Royal Court and National lists and take the plunge as soon as you seen something half-interesting.

  1. Almeida Theatre 4.33
  2. Royal Court Theatre 3.87
  3. National Theatre 3.81
  4. Theatre Royal Haymarket 3.80
  5. Young Vic 3.79
  6. Barbican Theatre 3.78
  7. Donmar Warehouse 3.75
  8. Arcola Theatre 3.71
  9. Orange Tree Theatre 3.67
  10. Old Vic 3.60
  11. The Gate Theatre 3.60

Frozen at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ****

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Frozen

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 8th March 2018

I see the Theatre Royal Haymarket is up for sale. Or rather a 70 year odd lease from the Crown Estate, a pernickety landlord, but one who has preserved the beautiful Nash terraces around Regents Park, and is slowing upgrading the built environment along Regent Street which looks a lot less sh*tty than it did 30 years ago.

I would love to buy it but I guess 20 quid won’t cut it. I assume that one of the big West End theatre companies, ATG, NIMAX or Delfont Mackintosh, will get its hands on it. I hope the new owners don’t tamper with the repertoire too much though I guess the family wouldn’t be selling up if they were minting it. A London home for that part of the RSC’s output which doesn’t get taken to the Barbican, and an opportunity for established directors and big name actors to tackle slightly more challenging work. Like Albee’s Goat last year (The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****), the less successful revival of Venus in Fur and now Bryony Lavery’s challenging Frozen. In years gone by we’ve had some Bond, Beckett, Shakespeare and Stoppard. Looking forward we have the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg bowling up in all their splendour and a French/English Tartuffe.

TRH, along with the Harold Pinter Theatre just round the corner, (ATG, and hosting the transfer of the the NT production of Nina Raine’s Consent from 18th May with a new cast), the Wyndham’s (Delfont Mackintosh) and the Garrick (NIMAX) at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, as well as the Duke of York’s (ATG) and Noel Coward (Delfont Mackintosh) next door on St Martin’s Lane, are pretty much all you need in term of “proper” theatre in the West End, including most successful transfers from the subsidised sector. Maybe the Playhouse (ATG) and the Gielgud (Delfont Mackintosh) as well.

The Grade 1 listed Regency TRH though is my favourite. The stuccoed front elevation looks like the real deal with its beautiful portico with six elegant Corinthian columns. The theatre was designed by none other than John Nash and dates from 1821 having replaced the previous incumbent which was built in 1720. It acquired its royal patent in 1776 joining its namesake in Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House. We were lucky enough to see Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg with Simon Russell Beale in 2015, at the Hampstead Theatre, not here, which tells the fascinating story of the TRH’s founding.

The bars in the TRH don’t look like an afterthought, loos are adequate and legroom is very good throughout. The Tourist has found plenty of lovely seats, from the 900 or so total, to suit his needs here, something he can’t necessarily say about the other theatres mentioned above. Outside of the balcony, the seats are comfy and in everything bar the very back of the stalls, and one or two by the wall in the dress circle, sight-lines are very good. The space is airy enough to accommodate the gold-leaf plastered on every surface of the beautifully maintained neo-classical interior, and the blue upholstery creates a much more balanced aesthetic when compared to bog-standard red.

So any theatre buyers reading this, by which I mean buyers of theatres, not tickets, I would snap up the TRH, however onerous the lease clauses.

What about Frozen I hear you ask. I will resist the urge to make the customary joke about kids getting a little bit confused by the absence of Queen Else belting out Let It Go. For Frozen, as I am sure you know, deals with a serial killer, Ralph played by Jason Watkins ,who sexually assaults and murders Rhona, the 10 year old daughter of Nancy, played here by Suranne Jones. Our speaking cast is completed by Nina Sosanya who plays Agnetha, the American psychiatrist who studies the case. The play essentially asks whether those who commit such crimes are born “evil” and whether they can, in any way, be forgiven.

So it is strong stuff and director Jonathan Munby and designer Paul Wills don’t pull any punches. Ms Lavery’s play was lauded when it first appeared in 1998 at the Birmingham Rep and garnered awards at the NT in 2002 and on Broadway in 2004. It hasn’t popped up again in London, perhaps not a surprise given the sIt is very well researched and emotionally powerful as you would expect though it does come over as a little calculated, with the Agnetha character slightly forced. When it is good though, it is very, very good. It is constructed initially from short monologues, later moving to dialogue between Agnetha and Ralph as she studies him, a meeting between Agnetha and Nancy and finally a meeting in prison between Nancy and Ralph himself where she offers forgiveness.

None of this would work if the audience were not totally convinced by Ralph. It probably isn’t any surprise that Jason Watkins delivered. I don’t mean to suggest that this will have been an easy role for him to inhabit, just that his TV performance as the teacher Christopher Jeffries who was wrongly accused of murder, suggested to me that his technique might prove suited. I was not however prepared for just how good he is in this. With his flattened West Midlands vowels, his false pride in his “logistical” skills, his pedantic explanation of events and his extreme temper he seemed to me to be the embodiment of the “banality of evil”. He is chilling, yes, undeniably odd, but also believably humdrum and, on the surface, quite affable. Detail after detail, his description of the van he uses to abduct his victims, the way he engages them in conversation, the appalling scene where he is displaying his paedophile videotapes, the explosions of anger in prison, leave the audience revulsed, of course, but compelled to watch more.

It is hard for Suranne Jones to match this. The play probably works better in a much smaller space. Director, and the design team, understandably want to fill the TRH stage, conjuring up projections of brain scans, assorted “frozen” images, ghostly images of Rhonda, and the like, wheeling props on and off with each scene change, as well as some unsubtle soundscapes. This all proves a little too bold I think, and Ms Jones has the most difficulty in projecting the incomprehension and grief that consumes Nancy for over twenty years, out into the audience. It is a bit easier for Nina Sosanya to highlight Agnetha’s contention that Ralph’s behaviour reflects his damaged neurological make-up, given much of this is delivered in the form of imagined scientific lectures. She also has some opportunity to show lighter moments, though we learn later on that she too is grieving over her own loss.

So no doubt this is a very good play, sympathetically delivered by a fine trio of actors. The direction might be a little heavy handed, and the space a little cavernous for what is an intense, episodic chamber piece, but it is well worth seeing. Particularly if you snap up some of the cheaper seats on the day. Just make sure everyone in your party is up to speed on the content.

 

Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***

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Queen Anne

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 3rd August 2017

Tricky customers history plays. How to introduce the characters and explain events without slackening the dramatic pace. It’s OK if your Will Shakespeare. He wrote the history. Or at least someone before him wrote something, which he then purloined and turned it into a great work of art with those words, oh those beautiful words. And ever since people have half-believed his stories were based on solid facts. Mind you historical “facts” are a slippery business anyway. Always shaped by the narrator. I’m with the master of wry Alan Bennett: “History is just one f*cking thing after another”. A quote he stole in any event from a distinguished academic, though no-one seems sure which prof. said it first. See what I mean.

Anyway the writer of Queen Anne, Helen Edmundson opts for the direct approach to exposition with characters bluntly announcing their identity and, when necessary, the unfolding key events. This ensures that we the audience can follow the action without the need for intensive background reading but it does mean the first third of the play feels a little disjointed. However once the dramatis personae are established and the various themes laid out we then get a fine story simply told under the direction of Natalie Abrahami.

The focus of the play is the relationship between Queen Anne (Emma Cunniffe) and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Romola Garai). Anne accedes to the throne on the death of her childless brother in law William III (played in barking king mode by Dave Fishley). You know he was the Dutch fella we invited over with wife Mary to keep the Catholics off the throne. He landed at Brixham, also famous as the birthplace of the Tourist. Hurrah. Here he is. Unusually without a seagull crapping on his head.

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Anyway Anne is a Stuart but the right sort as a Protestant. She is also childless despite seventeen pregnancies, a very sorry state of affairs. Her husband, Prince George of Denmark (Hywel Morgan) is a full on booby. Anne is, initially at least, physically and temperamentally, not really up to the job, so her childhood friend Lady Sarah and her circle of Whigs do their best to manipulate her to their own ends. Our Lady Sarah just happens to be the wife of John Churchill, whose rise to become leader of the Protestant forces across Europe in the War of the Spanish Succession against mighty France and Spain, (after a few false starts), brings recognition, wealth and prestige. This was a turbulent time in English (and with the Act of Union in 1707, British) politics and the play does an excellent job in drawing this out, as Anne seeks to make her mark and shifts allegiances towards the Tories led by Speaker Robert Harley (very well played by James Garnon). This was the era when Britain moved into the first division of European powers (though war proved an expensive business) as the Catholic powers were faced down and as capital was accumulated largely on the back of the slave trade (yes all you proud Brexiteers, these are the foundations your glorious country is built upon).

The tempestuous Lady Sarah gets the hump as her influence on Anne dissipates and gets properly jealous of Abigail Hill (played by Beth Park) another scheming ingenue who comes from nothing to become the Queen’s new bosom buddy. Sarah leaks some salacious correspondence but this backfires and she, her husband and her circle are debilitated (though the family has seemed to rub along ever since down the centuries – go see Bleinhem Palace is you don’t believe me).

These events are interspersed with some entertaining song and dance routines. This was after all the period which saw the rise of the popular press, in the form of pamphlets, and the emergence of political satire. The great British public, OK the emergent newly rich grasping oligarch Whigs (land alone no longer being the route to power), had put the monarchy back in its box and weren’t above any ruse to slap down the Tories, high Church and sniff out any whiff of Jacobitism.

So a fascinating time, an important monarch who ruled at a pivotal period in England’s history, and a well realised portrait of an intense relationship. Emma Cunniffe and Romola Garai both give very credible performances as Anne and Sarah and there is real passion in parts of the second half. But this is no Mary Stuart and there were times when I was hoping for a few more twists and turns. On the other hand if this is the sort of thing that floats your boat, and on balance I would say it should, then I see there are plenty of tickets left at very attractive prices, so give it a whirl.

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review *****

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The Goat, or Who is Sylvia

Theatre Royal Haymarket, 25th May 2017

I love the theatre. It wasn’t always so. Until relatively recently I confess I didn’t have the time or, more importantly, the patience to really grasp what it was all about. Yes I would see a few plays, and sometimes, if the production delivered, and I wasn’t tired or distracted, I could get lost in the drama for a couple of hours. This was though, an infrequent distraction.

Things have changed. I count myself immensely fortunate that I now have the time, and the means, to indulge what is developing into a passion, nay addiction. Which brings me to Mr Edward Albee. Until the last couple of months I had never seen one of his plays. I was just about cognisant of his existence, and had seen the Burton/Taylor Virginia Woolf film version, but that was it. Now I have seen, in quick succession, the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf production, directed by James MacDonald and with Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill acting their socks off, and now this version of The Goat.

And I can’t wait to see more of his plays. This was really, really good. The set-up is as simple as it is provocative. Martin, our prize winning architect played by Damien Lewis, reveals to best friend Ross (Jason Hughes) that he has fallen in love, emotionally and physically, with a goat. Ross is compelled to tell Martin’s wife Stevie (Sophie Okonedo), who then tells son Billy (Archie Madekwe – what a play to debut in). So we have a man at the top of his game with a fatal flaw who through the action of another is brought crashing down. So this is the classic Greek tragedy updated (apparently the word tragedy comes from “goat ode” in ancient Greek). This forms the structure from which Albee explores the nature of love, its relationship to sex, what society admits is permissible and what is not, and, through an immensely rich text, why this is so,

The ultimate transgression of bestiality is a brilliant device to play with an audience. Obviously it puts us into a very uncomfortable place but also encourages us to laugh, both because some of the dialogue is genuinely funny (Martin and Stevie’s intelligence and liberalism make them very aware), and as a way to deal with the apparent absurdity of Martin’s behaviour. Yet as the other characters come to terms with what Martin is telling them the tragedy of the situation comes through. Hearing and feeling the audience’s reaction to the drama is what makes this an outstanding play.

Damien Lewis perfectly captures Martin’s pedantry and, as he moves from a curiously passive matter-of-factness, to a more impassioned exhortation of what he has done, we get pitched between disgust and sympathy. Jason Hughes as Ross represents a society that cannot, and will not, tolerate his actions. I confess that I think Sophie Okonedo is a brilliant actor – her performance of Margaret in the Hollow Crown is the best thing on the screen which, given the competition here, is saying something. Anyway the way she charts Stevie’s journey from disbelief and incomprehension through anger and vengeance, yet still being reflexive, was riveting.

A play ideally makes you laugh, cry, think and reflect. Inwardly, if not always outwardly. It should also stick with you. This fits the bill for me and, I gather, other theatrical smart-arses. I also gather there have been some highly regarded performances since it premiered in 2002. So maybe the play itself was what bowled me over but I am hard pressed though to see how this production could have been better. A more conflicted Martin from the off maybe – but then that removes his fatal justification on which the reactions hang.

In the hands of director Ian Rickson, nothing gets in the way of the tragi-comedy on the stage. That is as it should be. Next up he is directing Against at the Almeida. I can’t wait.

So if you are like me a couple of years back – a bit too busy to do more than a handful of plays a year – this is what you should do. Book this, there are a few weeks left, the transfer of the Almeida Hamlet at the Harold Pinter Theatre and the transfer of the Royal Court’s The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre. No risks, five star reviews for all of them across the board. Then just wait for the next blockbuster.