The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre review *****

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The Jungle

Playhouse Theatre, 4th October 2018

So this was my second attempt to see The Jungle. I had to bail out of the first halfway through as my back wasn’t up to squatting on the floor of the Young Vic. This is not a complaint. Given the subject it is a shameful indictment of just how privileged I am to have come this far in life, and to be this stuffed with entitlement, that I can’t even sit through a couple of hours of theatre without complaining. What a pr*ck.

Given that I couldn’t find a way of getting to see another performance in the Young Vic run I was relieved when this transfer to was announced. This time I was able to secure a more suitable berth in the “Cliffs of Dover” in a Playhouse Theatre transformed by Miriam Buether’s remarkable set. For make no mistake this is a simply marvellous piece of critical theatre. The posters advertising the play highlight the string of 5* reviews. Believe them. There are a few seats left in the remaining weeks. Grab one as I doubt, given the size, and diversity of the cast, that this will be easily staged again in the near future. It is off to St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn so any New Yorkers reading this really have no excuse.

Anyone who vituperatively blathers on about “immigrants” and “asylum seekers” should be made to see this. It probably won’t change their minds, lack of empathy often runs deep, but it might force them to consider, at least for a couple of hours, an alternative, and human, point of view. Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson have written a “history” of the expansion of the refugee camp at Sangatte to over 6000 people, the eponymous Jungle, in the 18 months prior to its clearance by police in October 2016. (Though there are now still a couple of thousand people living rough in the area).

The two Joes set up the Good Chance theatre in the camp. They are now working in Paris. Read about them here. https://www.goodchance.org.uk/. Then give them some money.

This story is largely told through the relationship of two key characters, Syrian wordsmith Safi, who also acts as narrator, and Salar, the de facto leader of the Afghan community and the founder of the restaurant, The Afghan Cafe, the subject of the famous review by AA Gill, which is the setting for the action. Other members of the various communities, a French official and those who came to help, are also lucidly portrayed. In all there are some 23 named roles permanently occupying the “promenade” stage and its various interstices. With the audience seated around them though it often feels like more.

Directors Stephen Daldry, (who only ever deals in theatrical gold now), and Justin Martin have conjured up a riot of movement, sound, dance, music, video, conflict, language and costume, with the help of some of the best in the business (Paul Arditti, Jon Clark and Terry King for instance). The cast is superb. I would pick out Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, Ben Turner as Salar, Rachel Redford as idealist teacher Beth, Nahel Tzegai as the calming Helene and Dominic Rowan as the rational Derek, but frankly the whole ensemble is beyond committed.

The thing is though that beyond the production, the activity, the atmosphere of spontaneity, the performance, the polemic, the vital message of hope and despair, there is a bloody fantastic play here. Vivid human emotions are laid bare in just a few lines. The debate between the “optimist” Safi and the “realist” Mahmoud as to how to respond to their situation is electric. The suffering, and salvation, of the Sudanese teenager Okot (John Pfumojena, is humbling. The pride and determination of the camp is palpable. The motives of the volunteers are examined. The conflicts between communities are revealed. Individual journeys are graphically relayed. No-one leaves family, work, culture, community, education, society because they want to nick your hospital bed or school place, people of Britain. They come because the alternative is harassment, dislocation, destitution, torture or worse. Escaping a war zone or failed state is an act of desperation not a punt on economic advancement. And Britain is a destination because we are, (or were), tolerant and we have the language. Those should be reasons to be proud. Not running away and seeking two fingers up to the rest of Europe (and the world).

Throughout the play 6 year old Little Amal (Erin Rushidi I think at the performance I attended) flits wordlessly around the action. Apparently we tried, and try, to prevent these little kids getting to relatives in the UK. Breaks your heart.

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

Yellowman at the Young Vic review ****

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Yellowman

Young Vic Theatre, 29th November 2017

From what I can see American playwrights don’t like to arse about too much with the play, either in terms of dramatic form or the subject, the family history in one form or another. Why not, given the history of American gifts to the theatrical world, and if that’s what the punters want. From this apparent straightjacket have emerged some cracking plays, from the C20 masters as well as in recent years. It would seem that a recommendation from the journos and academics which make up the Pulitzer judging panel is as good as recommendation as any as to what to see. And that basically is all I had to go on prior to booking Yellowman.

Dael Orlandersmith’s two hander was a Pulitzer finalist from 2002 which tells the story of Eugene and Alma, from childhood into adulthood, from rural South Carolina to New York and back again, through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Most importantly, as the Yellowman of the title, Eugene is tall and light skinned, like his grandfather and mother Thelma, though not his father Robert, whilst Alma is large and dark skinned like her mother Ophelia. The actors play all the male and female characters (including Alton and Wyce, Eugene’s friends), with rapid, though sharply delineated, shifts between these characters.

The relationship between Eugene and Alma moves from simple childhood friendship, through mutual dependence, to teenage love then sex, engagement and pregnancy. This, on its own, would be enough to enjoy given the quality of the writing, but over the 100 minutes or so we get an incisive dissection of “blackness”, beauty, gender, domestic violence, generational division and abuse, inheritance, poverty and class. Very, very occasionally. Ms Orlandersmith’s writing lapses into saccharine cliche, but more often that not, this serves a colouristic purpose and can be forgiven. The deliberate repetition reinforces the deep-rooted identity conflicts that lie at the heart of the play and ensures the six characters as well as the two principals truly come to life.

About from a mottled, mirror floor and some subtle but effective lighting from Nao Nagai, the Clare studio space in the Young Vic had nothing else to work with for the two actors, bar script and audience. So they needed to be good, very good. They were. Christopher Colquhoun, (a long way from Weatherfield), brought an awkwardness and innocence to Eugene which heightened the tensions in key scenes with Alma, his father, Wyce and, latterly, grandfather. Nicola Hughes, if anything, was even more striking, turning Alma into a woman of power and dignity who rises above the self-hate others would have her internalise, and eliciting pity for Ophelia. One of the fiercest performances I have seen this year. I would dearly love to see her in more “straight” drama roles beyond the musicals she is renowned for.

It is easy to see why Yellowman has been so frequently revived since its premiere and why the talented young director Nancy Medina would choose to take it on. Its setting may be specific in terms, of time, place and community, but its insights are universal and the humanity of its love story is palpable. Yet this, if I am honest can be found elsewhere on screen, stage or page. What makes this really, really special for me is Ms Orlandersmith’s gift for dialogue and image. The five sections of the play are distinct by chronology, but is the skill with which the author paints in the detail that made going to see this one of the best decisions I have made this year. And all for £15.

The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic review ****

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The Suppliant Women

Young Vic, 21st November 2017

Before I get started let us just remind ourselves what a marvellous place the Young Vic is. I don’t just mean the quality and quantity of its productions, though heaven knows under the artistic stewardship of David Lan, this has risen to great heights. Not everything works but it is never for lack of trying. Kwame Kwei-Armah has big shoes to fill, though by all accounts he is well capable of doing so, even if the SO and I weren’t entirely persuaded by his latest directorial outing, The Lady From The Sea at the Donmar.

No it is the “feel” of the place that is the thing and the joy of the experience. It is always busy, it seems to thrive on inclusivity and diversity, though what would I know as a middle-aged, white, straight, rich, liberal, hand-wringing bloke, and everyone involved with the theatre is always so polite, welcoming and jolly. I am a right pain in the arse with my seating demands, but the front of house never fails to calmly sort things out, as they did for this performance. So thank you very much Young Vic.

Now I had been looking forward to this production of the from the Actors Touring Company based on the reviews from the run at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. (I see the Lyceum has a new version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and David Greig’s adaptation of Strindberg’s Creditors coming up next year – lucky folk). Your man Aeschylus wrote this 2500 years ago, (it was first performed in 463 BCE), but the issues it examines are just as relevant today. How should we treat refugees, the suppliants of the title? What rights do people have to return to their ancestral homelands? Where do we belong? How should refugees be treated in their new home and how should they in turn behave? Why do we have such a deep fear of the other? How can women be forced into marriage? How do women escape sexual violence? How powerful can women’s voices be when they come together?

It is all in there. David Greig, as in all modern adaptions, has to take a direct line translation, here by Ian Ruffell, and make it clear to today’s audience. The wonder is that it apparently remains pretty true to the original. I got the text. It is a beautiful read. The rhythms jump off the page. The chorus here is, unusually for a Greek play, the protagonist and has a lot to say, literally and metaphorically. Director Ramin Gray, together with composer John Browne and choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies, takes this structure and conjure up an astonishing feat, and feast, of movement and verse. Percussionist Ben Burton and Callum Armstrong, who has conjured up a real, live double Aulos (the contemporary Greek pipe), are outstanding.

Really. If you want to see the best “musical” in London then come here. Except that it is now over (oops sorry) and it isn’t the best musical in London, not whilst Follies is still on. Oh and I haven’t seen any other current musicals which I guess makes me a somewhat unreliable witness. BTW I note that if you are a) available and b) a party of one, or two at most, and c) enterprising there are normally returns on most days if you still haven’t seen Follies

The whole spectacle of this Supplicant Women is made even more remarkable by the fierce performances of the non-professional chorus of young women playing the supplicants drawn from the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. It is not just their verse, their singing and their dance and movement which impresses, but their complete commitment to the story which impresses. All after just a couple of months of rehearsal. Staggering. At the end you could see the pride in the performance of these women felt by the local lads ,who had a smaller involvement as the chorus of Egyptians come back to claim their would be brides, and the more mature amateurs who made up the Athenian citizens who tentatively welcome the supplicants.

Oscar Batterham as King Pelasgos, who agonises before persuading his people to accept the Women and Omar Ebrahim, who switches from Danaos, the “father” of the Women to the brutal Egyptian Herald, in the blink of an eye, as well as acting as our MC, are both excellent. However Gemma May, as the Chorus leader, stood out for me, not just for the clarity with which she delivered the lines specifically carved out for her, but the way she, well er, led the Chorus.

Fidelity to the Greek original includes a libation from an academic, whose name to my shame I have forgotten, which explained, as was the custom, who funded the performances, and a dedication to Bacchus, which involved a mediocre (I hope) bottle of red being poured on to the suitably practical breeze block flooring of Lizzie’s Clachan’s elegant set.

We have Aeschylus to thank for the concept of tragedy, and for the introduction of more than one character alongside the chorus. Only seven of his plays remain including the three that make up the extraordinary Oresteia, which should be seen by everyone at least once. The other two plays which make up the Danaids trilogy alongside The Suppliants are lost. In the Persians he actually had the temerity to warn his fellow citizens about gloating too much over their victories. In fact he fought against the Persians and his military exploits brought him more fame than his playwriting, despite the fact he ruled supreme in the Dionysia through the 470s and 460s BCE. One final lesson we can learn from Aeschylus: don’t stand directly under an eagle in case it drops a tortoise on your head. Unlikely I grant you but this apparently is how he met his end.

So there you have it. All the big questions, one way and another, were covered off by Aeschylus and his mates, Sophocles and Euripides, whilst the best we Brits could manage at the time were a lot of beakers, pointlessly shifting huge lumps of stone to catch the sun one day a year and pining for a decent hairdresser. To be fair, in all these Greek dramas, you do have to get your head around the intervention of the gods. Specifically in the Suppliant Women the somewhat erratic Zeus. For he it was who caused the women to end up being born in Egypt after he got the hots for a cow lady, Io, from whom the Suppliants were descended. And it is to Zeus they turn to help them when they cross the Med. If it was me I might be a little wary of appealing to the very bloke who indirectly got me into this predicament. Mind you that’s the problem with these top gods, especially the monotheistic ones. Simultaneously good cop, bad cop, vengeful then loving, all to keep us on our toes.

I am guessing that this version of the Suppliant Women will engage further communities after having visited Bern in Switzerland. Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, Newcastle, Manchester< Hong Kong, as well as London.  If so please seek it out. It is about as perfect a testament to the power of theatre, then (Ancient Greece) as now., and a paean to the collective power of women. It is also the first time the word “democracy” ever appeared in writing, albeit in the form of an arch pun from the Chorus. Precious stuff.

Wings at the Young Vic review ****

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Wings

Young Vic Theatre, 18th October 2017

Turns out there are a few tickets left for the final week or so of Wings. You could do worse than snapping one up. I cannot pretend it is a masterpiece, but the performance of the wonderful Juliet Stevenson, under the direction of Natalie Abrahami and with the design of Michael Levine, is astonishing.

Ms Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, whose world has been shattered by a stroke which renders time, place, speech, language and thought meaningless. We see her move from a world of utter incomprehension, hers and those around her, through to partial recovery. The rest of the cast play the various members of the medical team and other stroke victims, though they don’t have much to play with in Arthur Kopit’s script. Mrs Stilson had been a stunt pilot who had stepped out on to the wings of planes in the past and it is this motif than informs the play and production. From the opening, and throughout the 70 minutes of the performance, Juliet Stevenson is rigged up to a harness which allows her to fly above and around the stage. She soars, she twists, she turns, she tumbles, she occasionally comes to the ground. It really is the most remarkable physical tour de force, devised by movement director Anna Morrissey and a team from Freedom Flying. At the same time as delivering this bravura feat, Ms Stevenson delivers a notable vocal performance as she captures Mrs Stilson’s fractured Waspish speech and lapses of memory. She certainly more than earns her fee here.

This striking visual conceit certainly captures the dislocation between what is going on internally in Mrs Stilson’s brain and what is visible to the external world. As an academic theatrical document of the impact of a stroke I am hard pressed to see how it might be improved. The audience moves along a path from total disorientation, through to a qualified understanding of what has happened to our leading character. Yet we don’t really get to see the person that lies beneath the condition. We make no real emotional connection to her. This was originally a radio play and I am guessing the stage version normally involves a rather more static lead. That could be quite wearing I fear.

This production however wins out through the spectacular visuals and the stunning craft of Juliet Stevenson. Whenever, and wherever, she is on stage your eye and ear are drawn to her. She was a tactile Gertrude in Robert Icke’s revelatory Hamlet and a stern Elizabeth in the same director’s Mary Stuart, but in this play, and as Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days at this venue a couple of years ago, she is peerless. And fearless.

I had a notion the other day that we Brits, wherever we come from, might be better governed by a matriarchy of our greatest stage actresses. Juliet Stevenson would be Foreign Secretary. Surely an improvement on the clown who currently occupies the seat.

My Name is Rachel Corrie at the Young Vic review ****

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My Name is Rachel Corrie

Young Vic, 6th October 2017

I have raved about actor Erin Doherty in the past. She was the lynchpin in the excellent ensemble for Jack Thorne’s Junkyard (Junkyard at the Rose Theatre review *****), and was unbearably poignant in Katherine Soper’s excellent debut play Wish List. I gather from the reviews that she is the best thing about the possibly misconceived The Divide, Alan Ayckbourn’s new play. I will make my own mind up when it comes to the Old Vic.

Ms Doherty seems to have that rare ability of making an immediate emotional connection to an audience. There are plenty of other qualities that the best stage actors possess and I get that sometimes we may not need, or want, that emotional connection to the actors on stage, depending on the play, but when we do, it is genuinely thrilling and quite rare in my experience.

My Name is Rachel Corrie premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2005, and has popped up around the world ever since. It was written by the generous Alan Rickman together with Katharine Viner, now editor in chief of the Guardian (she is the one who begs you for a contribution if you read the Guardian content online – just pay up if you don’t want the digital world to end up full of crap content provided by idiots like me). It is based on the diaries, journals and e-mails of Rachel Corrie, an activist who was killed in contentious circumstances in the Gaza Strip when protesting the demolition of the home of a Palestinian family.

Ms Corrie was clearly a young woman of immense talent and passion. Her parents, who Ms Doherty sketches with great skill, her education and her location in liberal Washington state (“a place for hippie kids”), combined to create a world view that she determined to explore through action and not just words. Her writings reveal a woman who was anything but dull and worthy, they are shot through with poetry, humour and self-awareness. She was also no political ingenue, as some might have you believe, and constantly questioned her views and the legitimacy and value of her protest. She did have a strong view on the plight of Palestinians, which deepened with engagement after she joined the International Solidarity Movement, and this is fully exposed in the play, which also has little truck with the Israeli view of her death as an “accident”. This firm, but remember still personal stance, is what has led to continued complaints about the content of the play by Israeli advocate organisations.

I found the passages from Ms Corrie’s precocious early life (“everyone must feel safe”), and from the days before her death, most intense, as she seemed to determine how and why her life, and possible death, would have an impact. The last e-mail home sums it all up. The need to get things done, made transparent in her constant list writing, and to get others to listen, pervades Ms Doherty’s energetic performance. The set design from Sophie Thomas is minimal, just a wooden wall, with a handful of props. Ms Doherty even gets to change some of Joe Price’s blunt lighting design. Kieran Lucas’s sound design is equally direct. Wisely then, director Josh Roche, who chose to stage this play as the winner of 2017 JMK Award, leaves his actor alone to find Ms Corrie’s voice. Which she does. Brilliantly.

I don’t know how sympathetic Ms Doherty is to the message of the play, nor do I care. She is an actor. It is her job. But I do think she had real sympathy for her character which informed her impassioned performance. I await her next role (after the aforementioned Divide) with real interest.

 

Cat On a Hit Tin Roof at the Apollo Theatre review ***

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Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

Apollo Theatre, 13th September 2017

Hmm. I was expecting so much more of this production. It’s Tennessee Williams. An all star cast. The imprimatur of the Young Vic. And Benedict Andrews, who was responsible for the, by all accounts, revelatory A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, is directing, with the help of a top notch creative team.

To be fair, in large part, it delivered. The motives, pain, frustrations and jealousies of the characters were laid bare. In particular I liked (slightly against my expectation) Sienna Miller’s Maggie whose breezy confidence and famously catty (doh) put-downs belied her internal mortification. Lisa Palfrey (last seen by me in the excellent Junkyard) perfectly captured Big Mama’s desperate optimism, especially in the face of the revelation of Big Daddy’s diagnosis. Rising star Hayley Squires (so emotionally powerful in I, Daniel Blake) embraced Mae’s grasping with vigour shoving her fertility into Maggie’s face. When Brian Gleeson finally got the chance to let rip, as Gooper’s mask slips, we saw what a fine actor he is. Colm Meaney’s Big Daddy was moreorless on the money, but I wasn’t entirely persuaded by his key scene with Brick, and his accent left me straining to hear on a few occasions, (and for once I hadn’t been a skinflint so was in prime position). Big Daddy should bully everything in his orbit, inanimate as well as animate.

Which brings me to Jack O’Connell’s Brick. Other than his performance in This is England I don’t really know Mr O’Connell, but I can see the intent behind his casting. Brooding yes, intense yes, self loathing yes, but I am not sure he fully inhabits Brick’s vulnerability. This is not a easy character to play but there are, in the angry exchanges with Maggie and Big Daddy, enough lines to create a more ambiguous character than was offered here. In fact overall I was not as persuaded as I would have liked to be by the interaction between the characters. Tennessee Williams’s poetry gives ample opportunity for the main protagonists to project their inner demons but this has to work as a whole and this dynamic fell a little short for me. All this deception, of self and each other, all this conflict, has to weave together.

This was compounded by the set and design of the production. Taking the action out of the historical specificity of the mid 1950s Mississippi Delta plantation was brave, but a little foolhardy I believe. The brushed metal panelling which surrounded the bright space may have suggested sun, heat and, the blindingly obvious, gold, but opened up the stage, when claustrophobia might serve better to convey the stench of death and decay which haunts this play. Tennessee Williams plays work so well because of the language he gifts to his damaged people but also because he simultaneously shines a light on the society in which they are trapped, here a world of immense wealth built originally on the immense cruelty of slavery. This wasn’t really visible in this production. And sticking Jack O”Connell and eventually Sienna Miller in the buff certainly renders explicit the theme of repressed desire but Mr William’s words are just as effective. Mind you they are both mightily beautiful.

Now I feel like I am carping a bit. I would not put any one off seeing this production in the remaining weeks. It is just that with this company, with this director and this cast taking on this C20 masterpiece, I expected a winner. Still onwards and upwards.