Present Laughter at the Old Vic review ****

Present Laughter

Old Vic Theatre, 24th July 2019

Ummed and ahhed about whether to see this. On the one hand it was Andrew Scott in the lead as one of theatre’s most renowned hyper-narcissists, Gary Essendine. On the other hand it was a play from the dreadful old reactionary Noel Coward, albeit one of the quartet of classic comedies of manner, alongside Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, before he became a terribly bitter sh*t.

Its problem is that it is smugly celebrating the very world and people that it purports to subvert. Of course it racks up caustic barb after knowing aside, many of which are admittedly pretty funny, all wrapped up in a well constructed, if gentle, farce, but it never really gets under the skin of its main, or supporting, characters. Which leaves me more annoyed than intrigued by the central conceit, that an actor/artist, and now just “celebrity”, needs the constant validation of others to stave off lonely despair as he/she negotiates the divide between reality and performance. Message to Gary/Noel. Just because you know you are a needy prick doesn’t make you any less of a needy prick. (Essendine, famously, is an anagram of neediness).

Still my adoration for Mr Scott won out, alongside a hunch, correct as it turned out, that director Matthew Warchus would be unable to resist having some fun making explicit the covert sexual relationships at the centre of the original play. And, in the end, I was very glad I went. Still can’t quite shake off the indignation that informs the above opinion of the snobbish, bullying Coward and his plays, but I have to admit the layers that emerge through the play really did surprise me.

Rob Howell’s set and costumes offer a striking jazzy deco period vibe, (the plays dates from 1943), with a contemporary twist, which helped enliven the somewhat cardboard supporting characters, and Mr Warchus instructed them not to hold back. Which suits the talents of Enzo Cilenti as Joe, Gary’s forthright paramour and Suzie Toase as his cuckolded wife Helen. Abdul Salis is Gary’s agent Morris Dixon, natural comic Sophie Thomson as Gary’s protective assistant Monica, Joshua Hill as stalwart valet Fred whilst rising talent Kitty Archer turns in another vivacious performance as young devotee Daphne. Though these are all a little overshadowed by Luke Thallon as super-fan and aspiring playwright Roland Maule and, especially Indira Varma as Liz, Gary’s world-weary wife. Not quite everyone is putting on a performance but Gary certainly is not alone in the attention seeking stakes. And they obviously need him as much as he needs them.

The deliberately ropey plot is never over-accelerated, although a few gags are still painfully telegraphed. And somehow the genius stage actor that is Andrew Scott managed to extract pathos and ambiguity, beyond the sexual, from Gary’s egomania. He cannot quite escape the masturbatory-squared approach that Coward takes to his stage alter-ego but he does leave you guessing as to his true feelings and the idea of Gary/Coward as some sort of mid-life, man-child, he is in his early 40s, is perspicacious. And, once again, Mr Scott manages that rare trick of projecting his performance not just to the whole audience but also to each and every one of us, (at least that’s what I felt).

So message received and understood. Though I don’t think I will ever feel pity for those who choose celebrity. If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen. And definitely don’t stick your head in the oven whilst getting your publicist elicit public sympathy.

Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre review ****

Antony and Cleopatra

National Theatre Olivier, 11th December 2018

Simon Godwin is a director who has shown he has a bit of a way with the sprawling masterpieces in the dramatic canon in recent years. Especially from the Bard. His recently opened Timon of Athens at the RSC, albeit with the force of nature that is Kathryn Hunter in the lead, seems to have gone down well with the criterati. Previously at the National his Twelfth Night, (OK so that’s not really sprawling but it is stuffed to the gills with characters all wanting time to shine), was a belter, his excellent African inspired RSC Hamlet announced Papa Essiedu to the world, and further back the Tourist can bear witness to the success of his interpretations of Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, Shaw’s Man and Superman and O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, none of which falls into the snappy, straightforward category.

He doesn’t go in for the flashy, but neither is he by any means “conservative”, here being resolutely modern-dress. What I think he does do is think carefully about every single character’s attributes and motivations, and how they fit together, and ensures they have enough “space” to show those attributes and motivations. So even the most far fetched plot seems eminently reasonable. He is at it again with Antony and Cleopatra. You can see that from the string of 4* reviews and the gongs already handed out to the incomparable Sophie Okonedo (who has also I see now bagged a CBE from Her Maj) and the redoubtable Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (who I believe has never been so honoured though he is, as you might expect with that moniker, a distant relative of our beloved Royals).

So you probably don’t need me to tell you this is probably about as good an interpretation of the still flawed A&C as you are ever likely to see. (And you can still see it if you are crafty, and lucky, with the returns that invariably pop up a day or so ahead). Still, redundancy, and/or sluggishness, have not prevented me venturing an opinion in the past so here goes.

The problem with A&C, which was readily apparent in the last, somewhat unconvincing, RSC offering, lies in the flamboyance of the language, the articulation between the “great events” which provide its context and the domestic “at home with the … ” drama of our ageing lovebirds, and the potentially wearing effect of seeing the celeb couple always “showing off” to real, and imagined, audiences. Simon Godwin however has chosen to take these challenges head on.

First up he takes his time. At near 3.5 hours with the interval, across 42 scenes, this does mean there are one or two moments where audience concentration will waver but, with little in the way of cuts (though I am not expert enough to be sure), it means that the historical big picture is unclouded and that all the characters, and not just the power couple, get the chance to show themselves fully. Moreover the lines themselves are given air to breathe and the detail of the domestic exchanges has been rigorously thought out, especially the comic and ironic inflections. Interestingly only the final suicide scenes feel a little rushed with the snake being a bit of an indulgence. We had come this far so I would have been happy to see a more measured take on Tony’s botching and Cleo’s scrupulous choreographing of her own demise.

Obviously it helps that the acting is so strong. And not just from our Sophie and our Ralph. Tim McMullan as Enobarbus, especially shaven-headed for the part, is as wonderful as everyone says he is. It helps that Enobarbus is gifted with some of the best lines in the play but even so he brilliantly walks the tightrope of truth and cynicism (central to the whole play) in his capacity as detached observer and explainer of events and as the embodiment of corrupted honour. And he does all of this whilst barely appearing to try. Now I am pretty sure that Mr McMuillan doesn’t want for work, so good an actor is he, but I would like, no I demand, a Richard II and an Iago from him in the relatively near future. And a lead role in a new play at the NT.

The other standout was Fisayo Akinade as Eros, given full rein to ramp up the comedy but also squeezing a ton of emotion out of a character that normally is just a bit part. The smart money already knows this young man is going places. Re-gendering Agrippa definitely worked, especially with Katy Stephens stepping up, I really enjoyed the performances of Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers as Chairman and Iras, more put upon bessies than intimidated hand-maidens, joining Eros and Enobarbus as the conflicted confidantes required to soothe and distract their nominal bosses.

Hannah Morrish did her steely, vulnerability thing again as Octavia. Nicholas Le Provost did his Nicholas Le Provost voice to perfection as a slightly feeble Lepidus, though Tim McMullan’s impersonation might actually improve on the real thing, and Sargon Yelda was an adept Pompey. In fact the only slightly jarring performance came from Tunji Kasim (who is a fine actor make no mistake) whose Octavius seemed overly stilted compared to the naturalistic verse and prose delivery on show elsewhere.

This delivery and the afore-mentioned deliberate pacing also meant that the “performances” of A&C were foregrounded. A&C were the hammed-up actors in their own blockbuster, not just in terms of the ludicrously over the top way they voice their love but also in the way they inject this passion, this risk-taking, into their behaviour in the political arena. Whilst also knowing they are a bit too old and tired for all this display and that it is unlikely to end well. But there egos can’t help themselves. This is also perhaps what has made the story, and especially the “idea” of Cleopatra, so alluring to subsequent generations. (Though as the preposterous flummery of Dutch/British Victorian artist above shows most of these generations preferred their Cleo to look like she had come from Surrey).

Making sense of the “epic” in the tale whilst still permitting us to make a personal, emotional, connection is Mr Godwin’s, and his casts’, smartest achievement here. Hildegard Bechtler’s revolving set (note to designers: always use the revolve on the Olivier to avoid the “acres of space” illusion) is sumptuously minimal, or minimally sumptuous, making the delineation between efficient Rome (modern war room with split screen conflict footage), sultry Egypt (Alexandrian palace with complete with pool – only slightly Vegas) and all places in between, including a submarine, clear without being fussy. Once again it does slow down proceedings but, like I say, that gives time to process what we learn from each of the sometimes rapid-fire scenes.

I’ve no doubt that Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench did it better but this was the first time the play properly worked for me. Sophie Okonedo, dolled up in slinky ballgowns (Evie Gurney and the costume team can certainly tailor), breezes through Cleo’s caprice, wit, quick temper, self-obsession, but still manages to make her exposed, needing her soldier-boy especially when he is not there. The bickering is patently borne of adoration and mutual dependence, as well as their individual self-regard.

Ralph Fiennes brings a little of the faded rock star from A Bigger Splash as he dons baggy salvars when relaxing with his lady love. Yet he also, as you might expect, nails military bearing when required. Throughout he does seem troubled, burdened if you will, shoulders hunched, as if he knows how the picture will end. As do we particularly given Simon Godwin’s decision to show us the end at the beginning (and the end, obvs). I had forgotten how many wonderful lines Shakespeare gives Antony to grapple with his failure, his fading from view. Loved it.

Eternity was in our lips and eyes …. ‘fraid not Cleo as this excellent production shows. It will never be the Tourist’s favourite Shakespeare but finally I see the attraction.

Quiz at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****

milonario_el_salvador

Quiz

Noel Coward Theatre, 2nd June 2018

Your starter for ten. (I know I am mixing up my quiz show formats). Why where there empty seats at the Saturday evening performance of Quiz that the Tourist attended alongside the SO, BUD and KCK? Reviews for the original production at the Chichester Minerva, and this transfer, were very good with a couple of exceptions, playwright James Graham is a one man hit machine and the content, whilst parochial in some ways, the story of the “Coughing Major” is a very British affair, is still centred on a game show with global reach. If I were a tourist, as opposed to a Tourist, or a local wanting a good night out, I would be hard pressed to top it. It is a superb entertainment, very funny yet provocative enough to make you really think. Still the run is nearly over, so my comments, as ever, can be safely ignored, but if this does get another outing I can highly recommend it, even if, or maybe especially if, you or any of your chums are normally reluctant theatre goers.

With This House, Finding Neverland, Ink (Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****) and Labour of Love (Labour of Love at the Noel Coward Theatre review *****), and a string of other plays, James Graham has developed a prodigious Midas touch for popular, witty, effervescent theatre which usually takes “real” events from the recent(ish) past and dissects them to offer lessons for our world today. The drama and cyclicality of politics, threats to the democratic process, the nature and manipulation of “truth”, the power and reach of the media, flaws in the dispensation of justice, the creeping ubiquity of technology, the rise of celebrity culture, the relationship between state, institutions and the individual. These are all fertile areas of concern for most contemporary dramatists but few churn out plays that are as light on their feet as James Graham. I happen to think he is one of our finest living playwrights though I get that some may be a little snippy about his commercial success and the ease with which the muse comes to him.

Quiz takes the story of Major Charles Ingram, (via a book by Bob Woffinden and James Plasskett), who was one of the handful of million pound winners on the British version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. It skips through the history of British Quiz show formats, the genesis of a programme combining big money and high drama, the bizarre “plot” that led to the “win”, the subsequent court case, the lives of the individuals involved and the media reaction. We the audience are asked to vote at the interval, and then again at the end, after some of the details of the case are revealed, having been knowingly manipulated. Just like a TV quiz show. The play toys with our own recollection of the events, (sorry kids if this was before your time), reminding us that memory is uncertain and constructed. It taps in to our obsessions with competition and the notion of winners and losers. It shows the damage that is wrought through hysterical “trial by media”.

Robert Jones’s garish set is a bright lights version of the Millionaire studio, with a “light cube” of sorts taking centre stage. This doubles up as the home of the Ingrams, a pub for quizzes and nefarious meetings of various Millionaire obsessives and as courtroom. The set, the story and the structure of the play demand a high octane production and boy do we get that with Daniel Evans’s direction. The proscenium Noel Coward stage may not be ideally suited to this set-up, (the thrust of the smaller Minerva probably made more sense), and all the frenetic activity, and mic-ing, drowns out some nuances of performance, but hey, this is what you get with JG’s plays. Lighting designer Tim Lutkin, sound designers Ben and Max Ringham and video designer Tim Reid certainly earned their corn here.

The whole cast also has to be on its toes. Kier Charles as the hyperactive warm up act, as TV quiz hosts from the past, and especially as an exaggerated version of Chris Tarrant is hilarious. Paul Bazeley and particularly Sarah Woodward, who has a powerful monologue near the end, also shone when playing the opposing QCs. Gavin Spokes just about managed to get away with an air of bumbling, stiff upper lip, vulnerability for Charles Ingram that allowed us to maybe accept that here was a man wronged as details of the court case emerged. Conversely Stephanie Street managed to show a buried ruthless streak in Diana Ingram. Mark Meadows as erstwhile coughing accomplice Tecwen Whittock seemed harmless but was plainly desperate to win. That was my reading. You might have a different interpretation. That is the point. Maintaining this necessary uncertainty about their motives does mean a bit of an emotional hole at the centre of the play (which is not always the case in other JG hits) but the pay off is the comic dialectic. Did they or didn’t they “cheat”?

Our viewing quartet was in half-time and post match analysis heaven as we tried to piece together our recollection of the “facts” of the case, the detail of what had been presented in the play and whether we could “trust” this and how our sympathies had changed. BUD craves objective verification. In contrast The Tourist has spent way too much time in the theatre so he barely knows how to distinguish art from reality any more. The wiser heads of the ladies prevailed. We laughed a lot. All in all just what you want from a night at the theatre.

The justice system is not a branch of light entertainment. Truth is not relative – as some important historian said about WWI I think, Belgium did not invade Germany. The institutional structures that we derive from the Classical world by way of the Enlightenment are still the best we have. We the people still have agency. There are two participants in a narrative, speaker and listener. But we need to be critical, keep thinking and exercise our power. What better way to remind us than with a “real” story made up on a stage which beguiles and provokes us with the very concepts it wishes us to question.