Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic review ****

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Fanny and Alexander

Old Vic Theatre, 4th April 2017

I WILL USE BLOCK CAPITAL FOR EMPHASIS AS WE SLIGHTLY UNHINGED KEYBOARD WARRIORS ARE WONT TO DO.

FOR JUST £12 YOU CAN GO AND SEE ONE OF THE REMAINING PERFORMANCES OF FANNY AND ALEXANDER.

That’s right. All seats for the last week of the run are just £12. Even if you hated Ingmar Bergman and this was a load of tosh that would be a bargain. As it happens you shouldn’t and certainly not this, his most approachable story, and it isn’t. There are some 3* reviews for sure, mostly griping about how it doesn’t match up to the film. OF COURSE IT BLOODY DOESN’T.

Bergman took 6 months to shoot it. After 6 months of planning with art director Anna Asp. It is, in the full version, over 5 hours long. There are over 60 speaking parts and more extras than Brexiters in London. It occupies two worlds, reality and something removed from it. It looks beautiful, that’s why it got it’s Oscars. (I have a mind to persuade LD to spend a year in Uppsala University based solely on the film). There are over 1500 costumes. In short he chucked the entire kitchen sink at it, (there may have been several sinks, I will need to schedule another viewing to check). If Bergman had entered it in the category it would have won Best Picture, instead of the eventual winner in 1984, Terms of Endearment. The film about the making of the film is a great film. The autographical material at the heart of the film was enough for Bergman to spawn further work on film and TV.

It is a fairy tale of sorts, but with some real world joy and cruelty. It is mythic in scope, but at its centre are two families. It nods, sometimes vigorously, to Ibsen, Strindberg and Shakespeare. It might be Oedipal. It skewers religion. It sticks two fingers up to authority. In short there is an awful lot going on her. And all within the confines of a conventional Victorian melodrama (sort of). It’s a Top 100 film, certainly, Top 20 probably, and definitely a Top 10 foreign language film for me (though these lists don’t actually exist so beware the hyperbole).

It was never going to be fully captured on stage. Stephen Beresford’s adaptation is not the first time a dramatist has tried to capture Bergman on the stage, and it won’t be the last. Our friend Ivo van Hove has a particular penchant for the Bergman adaptation (After the Rehearsal at the Barbican Theatre review ***). It isn’t easy. I wonder if the best director of Bergman on stage might have been Ingmar Bergman, theatre director (I don’t know if he ever put his own work on stage).

Anyway wisely it seems to me, Matthew Warchus in commissioning the project, Mr Beresford in adapting this sublime material and Max Webster as director have plotted a course through “adult fairy tale” and family saga, and not got too hung up on all the rest. If you just accept the production for what it is I believe you will be, if not maybe transfixed, at least fully engaged by the essentially simple story.

Tom Pye’s set elegantly conjures up the Ekdahl apartment in the theatre, all crimson, before shrinking and transforming into the monochrome “prison” of the Bishop’s palace in the second half. There is constant movement, and a lot of scene changes, but this  brings the required vibrancy and energy to proceedings. The magic works, in a kind of pantomime-ish way. The plot is fleshed out by announcements side-stage which accompany the set-piece meals. Dialogue, where it is not lifted moreorless intact from the film, is snappy and to the point. Mr Beresford has found some real humour. The characters are only really sketched out but no matter, as there is enough to support plot, and the sketches are balanced across the key roles.

Of course this approach leaves a lot off the table. Penelope Wilton’s Helena might have stepped in from a Wildean comedy, Michael Pennington’s Isaak from a certain Shakespeare play, Sargon Yelda’s Oscar is a little earnest (especially as ghost) and it is hard to understand why Catherine’s Walker’s Emilie would marry Bishop Edvard. Kevin Doyle, for my money (I paid more than £12 remember), actually gets more into, and out of, Vergerus, than the rest of the cast, conveying something of his torment. The infidelities of Jonathan Slinger’s Gustav Adolf are played for laughs, though he got applause when he let rip into the Bishop, and Thomas Arnold as Carl and Karina Fernandez as Lydia are morose and not much else. You will need to resist the urge to boo and hiss Lolita Chakrabarti and Annie Firbank’s when they morph into the Vergerus ladies. Gloria Obianyo gets a bit of the requisite strangeness out of Ismael.

I have to say though that young Misha Handley, who was Alexander at my showing, was superb, from his very first solo scene in front of the curtains. It is easily enough to praise “child” actors, though it often comes across as patronising. I can’t tell you if his three colleagues are as good, but if they are then they must all keep up with drama school. OK so the lines flowed naturally from the drama but I couldn’t see the acting here. This could never be a world seen through his eyes alone, how would that be possible without close-ups and POV shots, but the production and his performance still made it feel as if it was, when the action really kicked in, anchored in his perspective.

So ignore the reviews, relax and be carried away by this story of good and evil. Then see the film, long version, and realise what was, not missing, but different. The play is still well over 3 hours, though with a couple of intervals, and especially in the second and third “acts” when things hot up, it never feels like it. It’s resolutely not a “memory” play, and it can’t replicate the camera’s eye. But it is enjoyable and if you go in with the right attitude, you will be sumptuously entertained. It certainly delivers on more of its promise than other recent productions at the Old Vic.

P.S. I see Stephen Beresford comes from Dartmouth. Adding further to my list of “important people from South Devon”.

 

 

Oslo at the National Theatre review *****

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Oslo

National Theatre, 19th September 2017

Well I’ll be damned. I didn’t book Oslo at the earliest opportunity, as is my wont for most of the NT output, and only took a swing at it because of the NYC reviews. And even then I wasn’t sure. I mean how could a near 3 hour, straight dramatisation of the negotiations which led to the signing of the Oslo Accord between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993, possibly form the basis for a riveting work of theatre?

Well it turns out riveting is exactly what it is. Writer JT Rodgers has understood from the master of such entertainments, a certain Will Shakespeare, exactly how to write a “history play”. Get the context in early and make sure we know who is who and why they are there. Weave this information into the drama, but don’t hesitate to repeat it, in this case through the use of a direct to audience narration from Mona Juul, played by Lydia Leonard. Make the scenes short and sweet. Do not permit long, expository monologues. Show the human side of the people but don’t hold back on the process (we the audience don’t need to be patronised – we will get it). In this case, given that the whole purpose of the negotiations in Oslo was to bypass the confrontational and procedural approach of the formal peace negotiations sponsored by the US, showing the humanity of the key protagonists came naturally through the dialogue. Don’t fret too much about sticking too closely to the exact facts – this is drama after all. Finally give us some ebb and flow, some tension, some heroics and sacrifices and some cliffhanger moments. Oh and stuff in plenty of humorous interludes.

Mona Juul is an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Husband Terje Rod-Larsen (Toby Stephens) runs an Institute and meets pragmatic Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (Jacob Krichefski). They offer a neutral, and clandestine, forum in Oslo, to the desperate PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie (Peter Polycarpou), and his Marxist sidekick, Hassan Asfour (Nabil Elouahabi), to meet two scruffy Israeli economics professors played by Paul Herzberg (who also doubled as Shimon Peres no less) and Thomas Arnold, to discuss the route to peace. As progress is made, the Israeli side is upgraded with the arrival of colourful Foreign Ministry senior official Uri Savir, (Philip Arditti) and eventually wary legal big cheese Joel Singer (Yair Jonah Lotan). With the assistance of Howard Ward, Geraldine Alexander Daniel Stewart, Anthony Shuster and Karoline Gable doubling up in the supporting roles, the ensemble is completed.

And what an ensemble. Whilst the writer is possessed of of an impeccably direct, funny and natural style, this was never going to work as well as it did without such perfect casting. Toby Stephens nails Rod-Larsen’s urbane mateyness but also left us wondering over his motives. Lydia Leonard (with whom I am a little bit in love I admit) was all archness and efficient charm You really believed that Peter Polycarpou and Philip Arditti’s characters found a shared bond that could bridge their massive political differences. And you reflect, with Toby Stephens’ final lines, on how uplifting the better side of our nature can be, even if so often, we (and our politicians on our behalf if we choose them), fail to let it shine.

This is a properly gripping and affecting story, expertly told, directed with stonking momentum by Bartlett Sher and with a suitably ambassadorial set from Michael Yeargan. If there is any justice it should fill the house at Harold Pinter Theatre for the transfer. I heartily recommend it.