Thursday, 31 May 2007

Review: Fiddler on the Roof

Lindsay Posner’s traditional revival of Bock, Harnick and Stein’s classic 1964 Broadway hit Fiddler on the Roof, lands at the Savoy, after its original run at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. The story of the Jewish dairyman Tevye, his family and their little village of Anatevka in 1905 Russia, their world about to change, never fails to charm me, even if this production can be a little stilted at times. It is a joyful yet sad story, old fashioned compared with the modern musical, but the show can soar beyond its enthusiastic song and dance numbers, as was shown by David Leveaux’s brilliant 2005 Broadway production.

I enjoyed this production in its previous home, but the move to the beautiful art deco Savoy Theatre has enabled several improvements to be made, but at the cost of truncating the large wooden set representing Anatevka (suitable for The Crucible’s huge open arena, but not for The Savoy’s proscenium arch stage). The enhancements are worth this cost, the orchestra is noticeably beefed up, the rich Russian-Jewish folk music inspired score sounds much superior here. The choreography has also been improved, Jerome Robbins original moves having been reinstated and adapted by Sammy Dallas Bayes. What’s left of the original set, is a wooden structure in the middle of the stage, now on a revolve, used as the family home and several other settings. In fact the whole stage is filled with wooden planks, supposedly evoking the fabric of the small village, but it seems a rather dull and overlarge setting to me.

Henry Goodman is excellent as Tevye, he sometimes comes close to overacting in comedy mode, but his well honed comic timing saves him. As a top-quality serious actor too, he is able to convey the conflicting emotions needed when dealing with his daughters, and their pursuit of love outside the confines of the arranged marriage. Beverly Klein as his wife Golde, is perfect, a mix of maternal bossiness towards her daughters and un-cowed feistiness towards her husband. The rest of the large cast acquit themselves well, particularly the young dancers.

The action occasionally sags, but the spirit is lifted, the show coming fully to life, during the big song and dance numbers (Tradition, To Life, The Bottle Dance and The Dream particularly), which are done with great gusto. The second act deals with the emotional consequences of the story, and of course nearly brings a tear to the eye. But I couldn’t help thinking how momentous the changes affecting Tevye and his family are, and that they didn’t quite seem as significant and moving as they could have been.

This Fiddler is not as emotionally satisfying or generally polished as it might be, but it’s an enjoyable production none the less.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Review: Whipping It Up

First seen last year at The Bush Theatre, Whipping It Up transfers to the west end and now occupies the bijou New Ambassadors Theatre (due to a change of ownership it will revert to ‘The Ambassadors’, from the next production). Steve Thompson’s second play exposes the venal world of the Parliamentary Whips system, his first play, Damages, did something similar for the fragrant world of tabloid journalism.

The premise of the play is of a future Tory government with a very slim majority, the action occurring before and after a crucial Commons vote, in the office of the Deputy Chief Whip. Mainly due to internal party ambitions and a conveniently pertinent news story, the bill in question has suddenly become contentious, and the whips have to use all their charm and/or menace to secure a majority. The play is actually a good old fashioned comedy, with mildly rude and sexist jokes, it can happily be enjoyed by those without a political bent. In fact, leaving political reality at the door is necessary, as some of the action is quite anomalous to real life. But as a gloriously disdainful stitch up of parliamentary machinations it is enjoyable.

Robert Bathurst is the deputy chief whip, complete with a charming public school manner, his junior is a nouveau riche wide boy with more loyalty to himself than the party. Their boss, The Chief, is Richard Wilson, a toff too, but a rather more vicious foul mouthed one. Helen Schlesinger is their alpha New Labour opposite number, with an equally devious modus operadi. Terry Johnson and Tamara Harvey share directorial credits (he did the original production, she took it into the west end), and the impressive stage design, an office resembling a public school common room, is by Tim Shortall.

I didn’t find the play hilarious or compellingly dramatic, but it is an enjoyable couple of hours spent laughing at our political classes. And despite the knockabout, it’s rather sentimental in the end, party loyalty being all for the fallen Chief Whip.

Monday, 28 May 2007

Illness and the seaside restorative

Doctor in the house

I go to well over my fair share of theatre performances, and I have witnessed some electrifying drama, delightful comedies and extraordinary musicals (Behind the Iron Mask, anyone?) on stage over the years. But I’ve seen a fair bit of off stage drama too, worst of all being the real life medical emergencies, from a man having to be taken away by stretcher from the slips at The Royal Opera House, to projectile vomiting at The Richmond Theatre. But overwhelmingly the show has not paused for these incidents (apart from the vomiting at Richmond, the elderly matinee audience cleared two rows in record time, and the actor, in a production of The Rivals, was forced to halt the show. He admirably continued from where he had left off after an impromptu interval allowing the ill man to be taken home and the soiled seats to be temporarily cleaned/covered, their previous occupiers now seated at the back of the stalls).

Last week at The Maids in Brighton, and elderly couple shuffled past me, I thought to rather rudely leave, but it soon became clear that the gentleman was in some distress. He was seated by the usher at the back of the horseshoe shaped temporary auditorium, in view of much of the audience (she couldn’t take him outside, as only a long flight of stairs lay beyond the room). This caused great concern for many of us in the audience, we were taken away from the world the actors were creating and into the more critical situation of the ill man. No announcement was made, the actors, who must have been able to see and hear what was going in on in such an intimate space, continued, but a doctor/nurse in the audience got up and went to help the man. He was eventually taken away by paramedics, and or course there is nothing that the actors or the audience could have done to help him further, but I do feel that the drama suffers so much from our divided attentions, plus it feels plain wrong to ignore the plight of a sick person by continuing with our entertainment. I can see that this argument can tend toward the morally vicarious or against the good British stiff upper lip, the show must go on and all, but I genuinely feel uncomfortable watching a play in such circumstances.

I also had a slight variation of that feeling the week before at My Child at The Royal Court, where the radically reconfigured auditorium forced the majority of people to stand. One young woman collapsed halfway through the 40 minute piece, the people around her moved to allow her to sit down on the floor, and the front of house staff gave her water. The displaced people generally stood into the acting space annoyingly blocking my view, even slightly blocking the actors’ ways at times. The woman was not seriously injured and no ambulance was required, so I personally felt it would have been far better to pause the show (again the actors were most certainly aware of this incident) and take the person away; she can’t watch a play in that condition and we couldn’t watch it properly either.

At the 2200 seater Royal Opera House, a serious medical emergency in the amphitheatre is not necessarily going to stop the show (unless the house manager says so), but on the fringe and in intimate spaces, if someone is too ill to leave the auditorium themselves, then stopping the show is the only decent thing to do, be it to remove the person or wait for appropriate medical aid. This brings us to the subject of having to stand in the theatre when there is little or no promenade element to a performance. But I’ll save that one for another day…

Seaside Restorative

Going Brighton did do me some good (and the show was great), despite getting home at 1am from my seaside jaunt.

I arrived in Brighton at 7pm on a Tuesday evening; The Maids was due to start at 9.15pm at a hotel on the seafront. Knowing the town well, I wandered from the station to The Royal Pavilion, I always enjoy seeing this magnificent edifice (but it needs a lick of paint to put it mildly), then I sauntered through The Laines to the sea. Seeing the sea is always a pleasure for me, so I enjoyed a stroll on the pebbly beach, then on to the pier for a single go on a slot machine, and the opportunity to read my book with an even better sea view against the contemplative sunset. What amazed me about this trip was the desolation, even melancholy, of the town, not a single shop (apart from the occasional newsagents) was open, restaurants and bars were empty, the pier was mostly closed up, and there was hardly a soul to be seen on the street. Never has Brighton looked so decrepit and old fashioned to me, but rather romantic none the less. On a weekend or when a big conference is in town, the place seems alive and vibrant (even a bit like London). But without the weekend pleasure seekers and clubbers, the town (or The City of Brighton and Hove as it now is) seems just like many other British seaside resorts, all crumbling faded grandeur. But I actually really enjoyed wandering around the town, it is a mellow place on a weeknight, and a sometimes fraught and crowded one on a weekend. Sitting on the pier with the beautiful sunset, and the excitement of the theatre to come that evening, I was supremely contented (and maybe even a little wistful!).

A few weeks before, on a trip to Chichester, I briefly visited Bognor Regis (I was there under 90 minutes) on my way home, mainly to have a paddle in the sea. Unlike Brighton, Bognor has not metropolitan illusions, it’s a small quiet town and seems to like it that way. I took a photo of the entrance to the pier and main seafront road, not a single person was in shot. But the peace and solitude of Bognor’s beach was wonderful, I sat there alone for half an hour looking out on to the beautiful unspoiled seascape. Also unlike Brighton, there is no mess in Bognor. It may be decrepit as a resort town, but the fabric is kept relatively clean and tidy, no graffiti or dirt which abound in Brighton. I’m afraid Brighton gets me vote any day, indeed I hope my next Brighton sojourn is a bit livelier!

Review: Sliver Birch House

As you enter the main studio at The Arcola Theatre, you are presented with a grove of silver birch trees leading to an old fashioned and very simple looking front room, complete with wood burning stove. For Silver Birch House, a play about an isolated rural Turkish family in the 1970’s, the usual magical transformation of this huge space has once again happened. The highly versatile former factory has, in the name of drama, been a building site, a car park, a 19th Century Viennese drawing room, an African Macbeth’s castle and even a factory again.

Leyla Nazli’s first play, directed by Arcola founder and artistic director Mehmet Ergen, is probably very accessible to Dalston’s large Turkish community, but for others the significance of some events can be difficult to grasp without research, the play being so rooted in the recent history of the country leading up to the 1980 military coup. Here is a world where traditional gender roles still hold firm, and the universal education of children is not assured (they are amazed to hear about Hitler and the Nazi genocide, but their mother believes that Jews drink babies blood). It is hard to relate this to the Turkey we see in 2007, where many thousands of Britons regularly holiday, nearly neighbours in a globalised world. Of course Turkey in 2007 is also at the crossroads between Islamic, secular and even military domination, but it also sits on the edge of Europe, eager to join the EU.

The family drama, with shades of Brechtian political exposition, is reminiscent of Chekhov in its use of a semi-isolated idyllic rural location, dysfunctional relationships and metropolitan longing. The acting is slightly uneven in some of the smaller roles, but Peter Polycarpou is brilliant and absolutely natural as Hyder, the uncompromising and harsh head of the household, unconcerned with other peoples’ feelings. His wife, Sebe, beautifully played by bird Brennan, is fraught with worry and plagued by her obstinate and violent husband. Their daughters want a life away from rural poverty and domestic disharmony, and their son Tamer (Philip Arditti) yearns to meet people different from himself. He befriends a group of Communist Guerrillas, mostly idealistic students, and is awakened to the possibilities of life outside rural oppression. The rebels and oppressive government forces are both active in the area, either could be the death of a man with his name on the wrong political list. This political awakening leads to tragedy for the family, and ultimately exile to the city, their culture left behind.

Overreaching these events is the wider conflict of the cold war, America using Turkey as a bulwark against The Soviets. Inside Turkey the militarist government is fought by guerrilla communist resistance movements, who are trained and backed by The Russians. Where this plays is set, in far eastern Turkey, local language and culture are suppressed by the government in favour of a Turkish identity (see also the continuing battle of Kurdish people for independence).

The play is very interesting, and with bit of effort, very illuminating. The history of modern Turkey is important in helping us understand their place as bridge between the Islamic and European worlds, this play gives us some clue these conflicting cultures.

Review: The Letter

The Letter at The Whyndhams’s Theatre looks very creaky indeed in this Bill Kenwright production, directed by Alan Strachan. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play is about a murder in colonial Malaya, and gives us some insight into the very dull and very British lives the ex-pats lead, and indeed the unthinking contempt with which they treat the native population (for example, by calling the men who work for them ‘boy’). Mrs Crosbie, a plantation owner’s wife shoots a male acquaintance who visits her home, seemingly uninvited, whilst her husband is in Singapore. Mrs Crosbie tells the authorities that the man attempted to rape her, and it’s plain sailing for an acquittal until an incriminating letter, detailing a relationship between the deceased and the accused, comes to light. Mrs Crosbie’s Lawyer, Howard Joyce, is also a close friend of her husband, but is certainly not fond of her. Joyce’s Malay legal clerk tells his boss of the existence of this incriminating letter, and despite his usual implacable integrity, Joyce agrees to pay to buy missive and thereby keep it from the prosecuting authorities, literally saving Mrs Crosbie’s neck. This results in Mrs Crosbie’s acquittal, but leads to frank revelations about her relationship with her husband, who she has never loved.

The play opens with Mrs Crosbie firing the gun (all six bullets) on a pitch black stage, so we’re not entirely sure of her story until later in the play, when we realise she is telling a pack of lies, and is a brutal murderer. We don’t see any of the trial either, so the play is heavy on exposition and description of events. I found a faint whiff of misogyny in Maugham’s story of the perennial femme fatal with a steely will. She deceives the menfolk with her sweet nature and turns her emotions on when it suits the situation, and is capable of emptying the lead repeatedly into her caddish ex-lover. This production also plays up Maugham’s homosexuality as key to the plot, but in a clunky and forced way. We’re to infer something more than friendship on the part of Mr Joyce towards Mr Crosbie. This entails Joyce patting Crosbie on the shoulder, letting him mop his brow with his handkerchief or giving him a broad smile from time to time. Yes, there probably is a homosexual subtext, but this production underlines it far too heavily, clearly thinking the audience are unable to work things out for themselves. The stereotyping of the native people by Maugham is also pretty ropey, an opium den overseen by a stoned amoral Chinaman, a slimy native lawyer willing to blackmail his boss, a shy and gaudy concubine selling her soul to the white man. The performance too were patchy. Anthony Andrews as the lawyer looked like a 100 year old giant tortoise with a constantly furrowed brow; you could hear the cogs in his head processing every thought. Jenny Seagrove is too flat, and then unfortunately high pitched, to be believable. Jason Chan as they legal clerk to Mr Joyce was extraordinarily slimy, but he does have a couple of funny lines which he delivered well. An old fashioned and mildly hammy night at the theatre, a sop to the theatre of yesterday.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Review: Sizwe Banzi is Dead

Sizwe Banzi is Dead is one of the most vibrant plays by South Africa’s most prestigious playwright, Athol Fugard. In Peter Brook’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production, visiting The Pit Theatre at the Barbican, I felt much of the humour and life was squeezed out of the play. Brook is know to like spare production values, but he is not usually noted for his brevity, this time however, the version of the play his actors speak is much shorter than the published and normally performed version. Whilst abridgement may work in some cases, messing with Fugard’s hardly overlong play, making it into a 70 minute piece, is disastrous.

I should explain that I saw the recent production of this play at The National Theatre. That version (from Capetown’s Baxter Theatre) starred John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who also co-devised the play with Fugard. Seeing these men playing the roles was brilliant, I realised that they were perhaps too old now, but it felt right, and their age an their struggle as Black South Africans meant something. More brilliant than their performance though was the play, the humour and vibrancy of the story shines through. And the story is a simple one, one black man tell us about how he came to become a photographer after working for Ford, another, a customer of the photographer, tells us how Sizwe Banzi came to be dead. The story brilliantly encapsulates the despicable injustices of the apartheid regime, and the powerlessness of black people in the face of the system.

Brook’s production (in French) cuts nearly all of the humour, and much of the descriptive element of the play, and I just can’t stop asking why. The play is still funny and vital, but that is not thanks to the cuts. Habib Dembele (as the photographer) and Picho Womba Konga (as Sizwe), are decent enough actors, bringing more physicality to the roles than the pairing at the NT, but emotion can often seem over the top and oddly flat in this staging. I certainly felt, despite the much smaller space, much less engaged with the action. Maybe I have too high expectations from Brook, having enjoyed the last 3 or 4 productions he has brought to this country, and never having felt that they were emotionally fake. Unfortunately this Sizwe just doesn’t have the punch that the play should posses.

Review: The Maids

To the Old Ship Hotel for the Brighton Festival’s production of The Maids. Written in 1947 by iconoclast French playwright and author Jean Genet, a new translation of the play has been produced by director Neil Bartlett. The programme loftily states that this is a ‘world premier’; I am slightly fed up with every new translation of a classic being treated like a new work, seemingly springing forth from the loins of its oh so creative director. But that aside, Bartlett was an imaginative and successful artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith until recently, and having left that institution and a red velvet auditorium behind, he has decided to stage this production in the polar opposite, an industrial looking space off the hotel’s car park and up some grotty back stairs. The traverse stage is simply the red and white confetti strewn concrete floor, and the set a bed and side table, with several warped chandeliers on the floor, acting as atmospheric lighting. We are all enveloped by the huge room, racks full of cloths trailing back from the stage, the audience up close to the actors, yet also within the cavernous space.

The Maids of the title are sisters Solange and Claire. They play out a fantasy of killing their mistress, Madame, nightly when she is out. Genet wrote the play inspired by the real life case of sisters who killed their employer, only in his mind events are warped way beyond that course of action. The bizarre, and by now ritual, acting out of pleasantries followed by hideous insults and eventual murder, is horribly spellbinding, the hatred for their mistress clear, but their desire for her love also evident from their ordinary conversation. Their ritual is also personal, one sister using the guise of acting to put the other down, identities also become confused in such a heated and theatrical world.

All the actors were absolutely brilliant the night I attended, each one perfectly performing the roles they had been given. Kathryn Hunter as Claire, the sister who plays out Madame in their fantasy, sadistically insulting her sister and degrading the servant classes, disgusted by the filthy world she feels part of. Hayley Carmichael as Solange, who has a split personality, loving her humiliation but wanting to dominate her sister (and Madame) too. Their horrible needy relationship with each other is dominated by Madame (who appears relatively briefly), played by Geraldine Alexander, frightfully upper class and totally selfish, blithe to any bitter resentment from her maids, or even the thought that they might exist beyond their interactions with her.

Astonishingly the three parts of this play are shared by the actors, each one playing a different part on a different night (and only finding out on the day which). For the audience this is a thrill; ‘who will we get tonight’ will be the question before the play, and who suits which role best the vexed question for afterwards. But for the actors, rehearsing 6 different versions of a play, let alone remembering 3 sets of lines, must be daunting, especially for such a short run (14 performances), but they do it brilliantly, I would never have guessed that they had not been specifically cast and rehearsed in those roles. The Maids is a great play about identity, given a great production by Bartlett and made brilliant by the actors.

Review: The Reporter

Nicholas Wright’s new play, The Reporter (NT Cottesloe), fascinated and held every shred of my attention for its duration despite my uncomfortable seat. The biographical reconstruction of the BBC television journalist (and sometime spy), James Mossman, is an eventful, interesting, emotionally intelligent and highly entertaining exploration of his life from 1963, up to his suicide in 1971.

Sir Richard Eyre directs a pitch perfect cast, led by Ben Chaplin as the reporter; he is emotionally venerable yet unruly and distant at the same time. Chris New (who made such a brilliant debut last year in Bent at The Trafalgar Studios) is Mossman’s mentally unstable Canadian lover Louis. New beautifully conveys his helplessness, even through the character’s demanding personality and a haze of pills and liquor. Paul Ritter almost steals the show with his bumptious and comical portrayal of Robin Day, Mossman’s Panorama colleague. Despite many laughs via the eccentrics who populated Mossman’s life, the play is essentially serious, with his depression and private (or at least not formally public) homosexuality dominating events. We can never really know why Mossman killed himself, and Wright astutely decides not to give us neat an easy answers. Instead we have unspectacular and very English emotion, or at least English emotion circa 1971.

A riveting play, with some highly entertaining performances on show, including a tedious Harold Wilson smoking a pipe on live television, just imagine a politician doing that now. The play, so evocative of the time, is highly recommended.

Exhibition review: Antony Gormley, Blind Light

Antony Gormley has made his reputation as an artist with a series of bold pieces reflecting form, usually the human body. The most notable of those pieces is The Angel of The North, just outside Newcastle. Never does a train journey to Newcastle or beyond pass without the whole carriage craning to see the soaring figure of a winged human shape, standing guard over the adjacent motorway.

In Blind Light, his first major London show, Gormley has pulled out all the stops in his exploration of space. Several large scale instillations have been ensconced in The Hayward Gallery, the most memorable and affecting being the title piece. Blind Light is a large glass room filled with dense white mist. It is a thrilling and frightening experience, you literally can’t see a thing, nervously feeling for the glass walls and embarrassingly knocking into people all around you (the room contains up to 25 people at one time, you have to queue to get in). The piece is nothing without spectators and participants, it perfectly illustrates the artist’s views on engagement with art in general. Watching from outside you can see people inside the glass, but only when they are close to the walls, their hands tentatively reaching out, and of course they can’t see you, it’s a wonderful image.

The other piece that you are required to queue for is Hatch. Only two people are allowed into this small room at a time, it’s made up of endoscopic tubes, allowing you to look out and others to look in. Inside, from the walls and floor protrude metal bars or varying size randomly positioned. This makes you acutely aware of your environment, every step carefully judged, the fact that people are looking at you makes you feel slightly self conscious, if not uncomfortable. When walking around in our daily lives such judicious thought or specific scrutiny is not our general experience.

Other than this, the exhibition takes a more conventional Gormley form; casts of the artist feature in several works, in another concrete boxes (one for the head, one for the body) are cast representing the measurements of his volunteers, an army of them filling up a room, also positioning the various bodily orifices as holes in the concrete. Everywhere at the exhibition you are required to look at things slightly differently, often confronted with human form in strange positions, or a environment where you have to think carefully about your own position, as it Habitat.

My favourite piece is not in the Hayward itself, it is Event Horizon, 31 metal statues taken from a full body cast of Gormley, and placed around, but radiating towards, the gallery, dotting the skyline on top of buildings and even on Waterloo Bridge. These expressionless creations bring into scale the hugeness of the urban environment, or the smallness of the human form, and make us reflect on our place in the landscape (a further variation on ‘Habitat’). You actually don’t notice the statues at first when busily walking along The Southbank, but when you do want to see them they are everywhere, you’re amazed they didn’t strike you straightaway. These weird people amongst the familiar skyline are unsettling, but also feel like they belong there. Already people are wondering if they can ever be removed.

Judging the exhibition overall, I think Gormley’s motif is almost worn out with repetition, the grand new works going through the motions. Certainly the high blown language of the exhibition guide can be off-putting, I personally either feel a visceral reaction to something or not, I don’t think people need a paragraph or two to tell them how to feel about art (a simple statement can be useful, granted). I’m certainly not saying that the exhibition is not worthwhile, it is, but with the familiarity in the work, queues at the gallery and hyperbole surrounding the show, it can feel a little bit like a theme park ride.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Thoughts: Youngsters on the fringe; Islington Curry and a rusbbish market; Sexing up of cinema trailers

Young at Heart

The press, the theatre part of it anyway, has had quite a lot to say about age recently. And whilst I don’t think age is the be all and end all, getting young people into the theatre is vitally important to the future health of our beloved theatre, we can all agree on that right?

We’re often told about the demise of the West End, but that never happens, in fact each year recently has seen record attendances. The average age at many WE shows is middle aged to say the least, but some shows, like Avenue Q for example, clearly buck that trend.But more interesting to me is what is happening outside of the West End. The fringe in London (and the regional stage to some extent) is booming, bigger than ever before, and from what I have seen over the last few years, packed with enthusiastic young people, keen to experience the live arts.

But this weekend I has such a youthful theatregoing experience, it stands out in my mind. At the Soho at 4pm on Saturday at least 70% of the audience were younger than 35, that’s just an estimate, it could be more. Young and old alike were held for two hours by Philip Ridley’s Leaves of Glass; no one left, went to the toilet or talked. They sat and watched a serious and sometimes brutal play about suicide, mental fragility and child abuse, but in no way sensationalist or tacky. Who says young people are idiots with the attention span of a goldfish?

Then in the evening to The Old Red Lion theatre pub in Islington. Here a crazily young crowed had gathered to see the two short plays, many of them were much younger than me (I was 25 a month ago), teenaged girls in short dresses and studiously scruffy twenty something males were in the majority. This throng literally packed out the blazing hot and tiny auditorium, I heard the house manager (or fringe equivalent) saying that they had 7 or more extra people queuing to get in (I think they did manage to squeeze them all in- don’t tell Islington Council).

The night before at the Almeida for Big White Fog, there were even a few young people in the normally very white very middle class very middle aged audience (there were quite a few black people present too, as Big White Fog is a black American play).

The clear message from all this is, that there is an appetite for theatre amongst young people, you don’t have to dumb down to get them through your doors, just put good (appealing and relevant) stuff on. My only concern is that the theatre is still not accessible for a whole section of the population, young and old, because they fell it is not for them (when it is, or should be). This must be tackled through education and theatre trips for all school children. This is essential and not a luxury.

Overall though, the health of the fringe (and the commercial sector, there is symbiosis) is so exciting, and a very hopeful for the future of legit theatre in the UK (new writing especially, a theatre scene comprising only of classics is dead).

Islington Curry, rubbish market

On Saturday, between a Soho theatre matinee and an 8.45 show at The Old Red Lion, I took my repose, as I often do when I have the time, at The Indian Veg Bhelpoori House on Chapel Market.

This is a unique place, not for being vegetarian, there a plenty of those (Drummond St near Euston has some good ones), but because this is a £3.50 buffet, all day, every day (I remember when it was £2.99, the good old days). The food is hearty and good, not great mind you, but good. I can’t eat much at the moment, due to a recent operation, but being a veggie place I managed a few spoons of saucy and soft things, which were very nice. The décor is working men’s café style, simple and old fashioned, with pictures of the various beauty queens who have eaten here (seriously, beauty queens) and tracts praising the health of vegetarianism (half the food here is fried!). The staff are friendly, but leave you alone, and the atmosphere is great. I sat for a couple of hours reading my papers, writing, eating a tiny piece of papadum and mostly listening to the fascinating conversations of the other customers.

It is also fascinating to walk down Chapel Market, a very vibrant street market in Islington. It’s a bit like my own local (born and bread) Shepherds Bush Market, except even cheaper. If you go there after the market has finished, and before the evening clean up you see an awesome sight; lots of rubbish. People clearing away the last bits and bobs off their stalls, road sweepers chatting to each other, poor old ladies looking through the discarded fruit boxes to salvage anything edible. Between the Indian buffet, the street market and the Old Red Lion pub, all human life is here.

Sexed Up Cinema?

On Sunday to Shepherds Bush Vue (that’s cinema to you and me) for Zodiac, the new film from David Fincher (Fight Club being my fav of his films so far). Based on a book about the still unsolved Zodiac murders in the San Francisco area in the late 60’s to early 70’s, it’s a pretty gripping two and a half hours of detective work. I really enjoyed it, the ensemble cast were brilliant (Mark Ruffalo as a Columbo-ish detective and Jake Gyllenhaal as a nerdy newspaper cartoonist cum detective were outstanding). Out very own Brian Cox also makes a brief appearance as a media savvy lawyer, how does he get time to do plays; he’s just in so many films?

But the thing that interested me was the reaction the rest of the audience had to the film. It was a packed screening, this is unusual for a non blockbuster (Spider Man level of blockbuster) in my area, as we have plenty of cinemas and choice and the film had been on several times already that day. Obviously this is a mainstream Hollywood film, but not a popcorn flick. But it was clear that many of the audience didn’t like the film, the people next to me were nearly asleep, there was much muttering, extended toilet breaks etc, and afterwards I could hear people saying ‘it’s crap’ etc. I think the problem is, that having seen the trailer, the film looks like a conventional serial killer flick with a handsome central hero. The fact that this is an investigative film, with no solid conclusion (the case is still unsolved) and an ensemble cast was not what many people were expecting. If they’d know I’m sure many would have chosen less demanding, and shorter, films for their Sunday night.

I have noticed this tendency to ‘sex up’ film trailers. I think sometimes the same kind of sleight of hand misrepresentation sometimes even happens in the theatre…..

Review: The London Plays

At the tiny, and obscenely hot, Old Red Lion in Islington, I caught the last (packed out) performance of a double bill of short plays by Ed Hime. Collectively entitled The London Plays, the first play, London Tongue, deals with a man on the edge in the big city, and the second, London Falls, is a double monologue of passengers having a biblically bad day on the Underground.

London Tongue stars Oliver Farnworth as Bloke, our antihero for the evening. He is almost manic, and able to change his demeanour from sweet to sour in an instant. Just like most Londoners you could say. But Bloke uses his anonymous metropolitan opportunities to the max; telling the Russian market researcher about his masturbation fantasies over her, having a gay one night stand and refusing to leave when his shag’s boyfriend is coming home, or an internet arranged rendezvous with an older woman as part of a fantasy role-play. His encounters are all brief and can be very funny; bluntly telling a teenage female neighbour that he’s just had gay sex elicits a reply of ‘I didn’t know you was a batty’ (he’s living with his girlfriend). The thing I overwhelmingly want to say about this play is, that it’s simply very entertaining, it is not portentous or pretentious (neither is it sex obsessed, despite my description). But it is a good, short, sharp portrait of a manic day.

London Falls is quite different, although also enjoyable, we almost enter the realm of poetry. Man and Woman are both on tube journeys, they don’t talk to each other, they’re not known to each other as far as we know, they tell their stories directly to the audience. We go into their inner monologue, the whys and the wherefores, the casual fantasies. An explosion in a train under The Thames causes the tunnel to flood, havoc is wreaked and horribly, effectively, described. But then we come out of that terrible event, was it real or an awful fantasy? Whatever the case, the play is not totally dramatically successful, the loose ending being the problem. But the delivery from Kate Colgrave Pope and Paul McEwan (who also featured in the first play) was excellent. Direction of the plays by Kelly Wilkinson was also good, but the design by Becky Gunstone was a horrible array of blinds hiding props. A simple bare set would have been much more effective than clutter in this tiny space. An enthusiastic young audience clearly enjoyed the evening, me included.

Review: Great White Fog

Great White Fog at the Almeida is a wonderful discovery. The play, about the troubles of a black American family in the depression era, was written by Theodore Ward in 1937 and produced soon after in Chicago, and subsequently in New York in 1947. But I’d never heard of him, or any of his 30 or more plays. As a black voice of the 20th century in the theatre, he is rare indeed, only August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry come to mind for writing plays about black people of the time, at least ones that we still see performed today.

The play, set in Chicago from 1922 to 1932, is one of family division. One brother in law believes in a homeland for black people in Africa (as espoused by Marcus Garvey), and that the white man will never let the black man get on in life. His brother in law distains what he calls ‘the monkey chasers’ and thinks his future lies in capitalistic integration, even if this means exploiting his fellow blacks. The depression, which struck at black and white, soon puts paid to either of their ideals, and their situation spirals towards utter desperation.

The play, directed by Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough, might be a traditional familial drama, but the context is not. Black nationalism, capitalism and the (multi ethnic) socialist movement are all explored. Despite (or because) of this, the play does feel dated, and got several inappropriate laughs at the performance I attended, the drama seeming a bit too close to melodrama for some people (I didn’t agree). I do concede that the ending is melodramatic, but it moved me to shed a tear none the less. If a play can ultimately make me invest that much emotional capital in the characters lives, I must deem it dramatically successful.

The acting however makes the evening, in the hands of lesser players the material would have seemed even more old fashioned. But the acting here is so absolutely first rate, and the cast so emotionally true, it is hard to disbelieve their stories. The company, especially for the relatively small Almeida, is huge, with several small parts (a reflection of the usual theatre cast sizes of the time), and I can’t fault anyone. I can praise though; Danny Spani as Victor Mason the Garvyite father was electric when arguing with his Mother in law, supremely played by Novella Nelson. Rarely have I seen a verbal argument of such seemingly genuine hurt onstage. The stage itself is beautifully and immaculately made up as a house of the period by designer Jonathan Fensom. The play is an excellent social document, and this particular production is a riveting night out.

Review: Leaves of Glass

Philip Ridley’s latest play, Leaves of Glass at The Soho Theatre, is not as explicit or unsettling as his last work, Mercury Fur, but it packs quite a punch none the less. Ben Wishaw leads the cast of 4, as Steven, the boss of a self built graffiti cleaning business. His younger brother Barry (brilliantly portrayed by Trystan Gravelle), is fragile and intense, a recovering alcoholic who also works for Steven. Steven’s pregnant wife (Maxine Peake) is suspicious of his recent behaviour, and he thinks that she has too close a relationship with his brother. Their mother Liz (Ruth Sheen) completes the picture, her husband having committed suicide (which she calls ‘his accident’) when their children were young. His death has cast a long shadow over all their lives, but indelibly damaged the brothers. Both find it difficult to cope with aspects of their lives and emotions, Barry’s alcoholism and Steven’s emotional detachment haven’t come from nothing.

The dark heart of the play only emerges in the last 30 verbally brutal and revelatory minutes (the play is 2 hours with no interval). The twisted relationships revealed can’t help but make you feel sick. Wishaw is such an intense actor, sometimes exhibiting a kind of twitchy physicality, it is hard to overlook his presence onstage even when silent. The rest of the cast are also very good in Lisa Goldman’s inaugural directorial project as supremo at The Soho. Her direction and the minimal stage clutter (a black box setting with two revolves and appropriate props) is a successful and sympathetic match for the descriptive language of the playwright to shine. Indeed the general action of the play is periodically interrupted by Steven, for him to vividly describe to us an incident from his childhood. Leaves of Glass is a play that doesn’t give us easy answers or concrete solutions, this, and Ridley’s descriptive mastery, makes it so worthwhile and evening out.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Japan in film and theatre

I went to the wonderful (and cheap) Price Charles Cinema off Leicester Square to see a matinee of Letters From Iwo Jima, the second part of Clint Eastwood’s films about the fierce WWII battle for that small piece of land. The first film, Flags of Our Fathers, was seen for the American point of view, and ultimately focused on the political machinations that saw our protagonists (who had famously raised the stars and stripes on the island) used as propaganda pawns by the US Government. Both films explore the nature of duty, patriotism and bravery, both also show the hell of war and are beautifully shot.

But it’s the Letters from Iwo Jima that fascinates the most. Here we see the conflict from the Japanese point of view (with subtitles), and at first the grumblings of ordinary soldiers feels like it could just have easily seen said by a US serviceman. But later, as we delve deeper into the culture of the Imperial Army, hearing the gentle Japanese language spat out like bullets, we start to see the major cultural differences between the East and West. The dedication to the imperial regime, the unbelievable dishonour at which defeat brings, leading to suicides unimaginable on the other side of the conflict. But we also see the similarities between the Americans and Japanese, the common humanity that a letter from a worried mother can bring, the emotion of hearing school children sing a song. It really is a brutal evocation of war, but a beautiful portrait of the human spirit.

That a non Japanese director could make such a fluent film in such a different language to his own often surprises me, Clint Eastwood really is a talented man. But watching the film I though of Alexander Sokurov’s exceptional film, The Sun, about the last days of WWII for Emperor Hirohito. As the Americans take power over Tokyo, the living deity has to accept mortal status and utter defeat for his country. It’s a very quiet film, reflecting what it may have been like in the Imperial Palace at the time, spare in words, but with every gesture imbued with meaning.

These two films, exploring almost the same time in Japanese history are both by foreigners, looking into the psyche of Japan. But I don’t think we see enough of real Japanese cinema in this country. We get the occasional anime or manga film, but after that (and maybe a more mainstream horror now and then) nothing much. We get such a large amount of (sometimes indifferent) French films at out art cinemas, perhaps its time to look eastward?

On the theatre front, noh and kabuki theatre is little understood or seen over here. Ninigawa brings us his brilliant and bold productions (what a Titus at Stratford last year, and an extraordinary Coriolanus at The Barbican last month) from time to time. But for most of us Pacific Overtures (done in the noh style) is as close as it gets. However Sadler’s Wells hosted a very interesting Kabuki show last year, with a top company from Japan showing us what Kabuki was really all about. It was a very strange evening, not only was the show so different to what I had expected (due to the diluted forms of Japanese theatre I had previously seen), but the audience was nearly all Japanese making for an electric atmosphere. Looking to the future, the Gate Theatre is producing a noh play called Nakamitsu, in a new version presumably in English (it’s on from 24/5-16/7). I enjoyed The Bee at The Soho Theatre, which was also an English adaptation of a Japanese play (although a modern play, Nakamitsu is a traditional noh piece apparently), but kept a Japanese sensibility (although Kathryn Hunter played a male business man, so I suppose that is in the tradition of one sex playing another). It was pretty brilliant, so high hopes for The Gate….

Talking of women playing men, also some years ago at Sadler’s Wells, there was a superb Japanese Hamlet (with a Japanese theatre company, but directed by Jonathan Kent). The Ophelia for that production was male, it was a traditional all male company, but he had specialised in playing only women throughout his career (another tradition). He one of the most affecting Ophelia’s I have ever seen, and a totally convincing woman to boot. So I think Japanese theatre has so much to offer, I’d like to see this kind of thing being more than just a very occasional gem.

Review: On The Town

The ENO is currently reviving Jude Kelly’s 2005 staging of Bernstein’s On The Town, with a crew of new leading men, but many of the supporting cast unchanged.

I enjoyed the show in 2005, and I enjoyed it just as much in 2007. Robert Jones’s simple steel girder set can look a bit odd at times (especially with interior scenes), but the large cast of singers and dancers and use of the full ENO orchestra makes up for that particular lack of spectacle.

The musical, which was also made into a film starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra (although much altered from the superior stage version), is set in New York in 1944. Three sailors have 24 hours shore leave in the Big Apple and they intend to use it wisely. Eventually they all end up with swell dames and get into various scrapes pursuing them, and that’s about it plot wise. It could certainly be said that Comden and Green’s book is a little thin, but this is a musical about the music. Leonard Bernstein’s superb score, mixing orchestral music with jazz and other popular musical styles of the time, can be majestic and funny both at the same time (New York, New York being the most famous song).

The male leads are decent enough, but it is the women who steal the show (and who have generally superior voices). The inimitable Caroline O’Connor plays eccentric taxi driver Hildy (short for Brunhilda) perfectly, in fine voice and on comic form. Alison Jiear also stands out, with her small role playing a series of nightclub singers, her voice is wonderful and her acting very amusing.

As with many musicals of the time, there is a strong dance and ballet element to the show (the show was first conceived of as a ballet). This includes some dream ballet scenes as well as big song and dance numbers. The choreography by Stephen Mear is very successful, fluently evoking a sense of the time.
My main criticism of the production is the costume design and scenic concept towards the end of the show. The action moves to the gaudy Coney Island, but instead of looking of the period like the rest of the show, we are treated to an luminous multi-colour display, looking more like a 1990’s rave than 1944 New York, with the chorus all in ludicrous almost glowing hats and gloves.

That aside, if you want some wonderful music, magnified by an equally wonderful orchestra (a rare sight, only possible outside of the commercial West End), this is the show for you. I must day that there is also a tinge of sadness at the fate of out heroes; who knows if they will see out the war to return to their sweethearts? I hope so.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Review: Three Sisters

Three Sisters is one of my favourite plays, and Cheek by Jowl’s brilliant Russian production at the Barbican Theatre cements its place in my affections. Chekhov’s use of recurring themes and character types throughout his work (provincial life, birds, trees, elderly servants, boring school teachers and the like) to express the joy, frustration and desolation of life fascinates me more and more at each viewing.

As with previous Cheek by Jowl visits to the Barbican, temporary stadium style tiered seating has been installed over the normal auditorium, bringing the audience much closer to the action (the brown seats and darkness of the permanent theatre is spookily visible as you climb to take your temporary seat above).

The story of the three sisters (Olga, Masha and Irina), their brother Andrei and assorted spouses and friends, is that of spiralling unhappiness in their lives. The desperate realisation in the end, that their dreams will not come true, but that the trudge of life must go on regardless. When Masha (Irina Grineva, superb) is left by the man she loves at then end of the play, her anguished cry is not just for lost love, but for lost life. Masha must stay with her doting but tedious husband, but moments later her tragedy is supplanted by her sisters’ grief, life has moved on to the next miserable episode This is the way of life is the message, but I never feel like all hope is lost, and neither do the sisters, perhaps they will get to Moscow one day? Declan Donnellan’s direction of his exceptional Russian company is fluid but precise, and their acting emotionally clear yet naturalistic. They invite us to make up our own minds about the lives of their characters, just like we do in real life.

So often over the last few years we have seen wonderfully detailed scenic representations the Prozorov home, but here in Nick Omerod’s spare design we have only banners bearing a black and white photograph of the provincial house (later to be replaced by pictures of the lush grove of trees adjacent to the house), tables, chairs, minimal small props and a bare black stage. This is effective in making the action of the play absolutely focused on emotion rather than the overwhelming sense of time and place which period productions can sometimes have. But as we have an all Russian company, speaking their native language, we also gain a unique sense of place simply through language. Hearing the play in its original tongue somewhat changes our view of Chekhov, I think of him as less polite and some of his characters as more extreme, certainly Natasha becomes even more awful somehow. I don’t think that this production quite matches up to their Russian all male Twelfth Night last year, which was sublime, but this is a fine emotionally insightful production, highly recommended.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Review: Called to Account

Called to Account at the Tricycle is slightly different to the other verbatim tribunal plays previously staged at that theatre. All the others really happened (the Saville, Hutton and Lawrence Inquiry plays come to mind, all pieces of fascinating theatre), but here Richard Norton Taylor (editor of the previous plays) has arranged his own set of interviews with selected witnesses, to investigate whether Tony Blair should be charged with the crime of aggression towards Iraq. It is an engaging enough evening for those willing to follow the questioning and look at the issues, but to the more casual observer it might be a little on the dry and certainly worthy side (whereas I thought the Saville, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, was gripping throughout).

Norton-Taylor has made a mistake in the form of this play I feel. He only asks whether the Prime Minister was in the strict sense of international law justified in going to war, which can be argued legally from both points of view. What is much more interesting is the moral point of view, especially now that the PM is about to leave office (though some would argue it the other way, but then you have to decide whether the war itself, or simply Mr Blair’s legal position is more important). If the inquiry had been a more general examination of the case for and against the war we could have had a much more interesting and balanced evening. As it is, the play is weighted against Tony Blair and little credence is given to the possibility that the war was morally right, regardless of WMDs, but because of the evil brutality of Saddam’s regime (a position boosted by the fact that the US had previously supported Saddam in the 1980’s and had some responsibility for events after that, including not removing him after the First Gulf War). There is no doubt that the aftermath of the Iraq has been terribly mishandled, from abolishing the police and civil service apparatus to the slow transition to home grown government, but public outrage at the current situation (and remember those dying now are being killed by their own countrymen and terrorists from neighbouring countries, not British or US forces), dose not automatically make the invasion and removal of Saddam wrong.

The staging is sober and static, the only way possible in this kind of play. Nicholas Kent, Tricycle boss, once again directs proceedings, his company of actors (mostly) giving solemn voice to the role call of witnesses to the mock tribunal. I would really have liked to hear rigorous moral and political debate on the stage of the Tricycle, but I had to make do with the audience booing a picture of Tony Blair at the conclusion of the play. I left feeling that our own Prime Minister is more hated in Kilburn that the now dead Iraqi Dictator.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Review: Vernon God Little

Vernon God Little is a brilliantly refreshing burst of dark comedy at The Young Vic. Adapted by Tanya Ronder from DBC Pierre’s novel, the larger than life characters strut across the stage and occasionally sing country and western ballads to great effect. We are in small town Texas, a Latino boy has shot dead 16 of his classmates and his best friend Vernon is implicated in the crime by the twitchy local Sheriff. Vernon is eventually convicted by a hysterical media circus and then a court of law. The story is tragically timely with the Virginia shootings fresh in our minds, but the play is not about the horror of the killings, but the frenzy surrounding them. The events that catapult Vernon to prison are awful, but also awfully plausible and very amusing. Vernon is played skilfully by Colin Morgan (in his professional debut); he has just the awkward physicality needed to portray a 15 year old boy. The rest of the cast are pretty wonderful too, especially Mark Lockyer as Lally, a slimy fantasist and architect of Vernon’s downfall (he also hilariously portrays a paedophilic psychiatrist who looks like Andy Warhol).

Rufus Norris as director is a happy marriage for this play, his interest in movement and song is perfect for this adaptation (almost a southern cousin for his delightful ‘Market Boy’ at the National last year), the country and western ho-downs are a highlight in fact.

There are longueurs in the production, and I do think it outstays its welcome a little at 2 hours and 45 minutes, but the sheer exuberance of the characters and brilliant low comedy sweeps you happily along for most of the time. The show is like watching a vividly exaggerated dream of reality, perfect for attracting a younger crowd to the show (which judging by my fellow audience members, it has done).

Critical Controversy

Many of our leading daily theatre critics are ‘dead white men’ who have been in their jobs for too long according to NT Artistic Director Nick Hytner. This accusation is made by Hytner because many of them didn’t like ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ last week, and many of the female critics on the Sundays did like it. Thus a schism between the sexes must be present!

I think this was a rather unwise comment on his behalf; it smack of bitterness because one of his theatre’s shows was disliked. Plus, Mr Hytner is 51, not exactly young (although not exactly old), and white himself. Whilst I do think the age, sex, and maybe even the class profile of the daily critics is skewed, does Hytner discard peoples opinions because of their age or race? I find the idea quite offensive. Am I to despise Michael Billington because he has done his job and garnered experience over many years? I’d rather respect his experience and expertise than dismiss them out of hand (but retain the right to disagree). Acknowledging that different voices should be heard should not mean dismissing those you disagree with.

Mr Hytner clearly feels that these older white males don’t ‘get’ Kneehigh or the sensibilities of female directors, even the modern theatre as a whole perhaps. It may be true to say that an older generation are not as comfortable with certain new styles as they were with the old, but people develop and change with time too, and they are still entitled to their opinion even if they don’t embrace exactly your view of theatre. Few people regularly reading a national newspaper critic will fail to understand what sort of person that critic is, what they are open to and what their specialities are, this is our (the readers) relationship with our preferred critic. I read Nick DeJongh daily (along with several others), but I don’t agree with him very often and usually can predict how he will feel about certain production.

As for men not understanding where female directors are coming from, well, maybe. But how can a 60 year old upper middle class heterosexual male understand a 20 year old working class black gay man’s play! Simple, they just interpret what they see as individuals, and make judgements based on that. An old heterosexual male is entitled to judge a young gay male director just as they can judge a straight or lesbian female director. No one has total insight, theatre is all about different perspectives and views after all.

Nick Hytner should get on with the business of running his theatres and stop griping about critical reactions to one of his shows. Writing people off, especially by calling them dead, is insulting and beneath him. Also, Hytner himself has shown that the critical arena does have female voices, even if that does mean buying a Sunday paper, plus I know of at least one male critic who loved A Matter of Life and Death (Mark Shenton). After all if Nick thinks that perception is such a gender orientated thing, shouldn’t men and women be warned of shows that won’t appeal to them, perhaps even have separate critics!

P.S: I loved ‘Waves’, think site specific theatre is great, adore the fringe and cherish regional theatregoing; does that make me in with the cool kids?

Critical Embargo

Someone commented to me that it was unfair to judge King Lear whilst the production is still in previews (my review: http://seaninthestalls.blogspot.com/2007/05/stratford-calling.html). This is a tricky subject, normally I would hold off on seeing a show until on or after press night, or occasionally I slip into the last preview. But with King Lear, due to Francis Barber injuring her leg, her understudy had to take on the part of Goneril. This caused the RSC to delay the press night by a significant period of time, to only 3 weeks before the show closed (it is a 12 week run). Some might say that this was a rather cynical move, as the production had already sold out on the strength of Sir Ian McKellen’s presence alone, and the critics were superfluous to the RSC’s needs (I doubt they would have delayed press night to so late in a run for a less financially assured production). The day I saw Lear was well into its scheduled run, and past the date of the original press night. So in this case, and by making allowances for the absence of Ms Barber, I felt fully justified in my less than glowing review.
As for real reviewers in the press, they have to wait until they are invited, usually to a single performance, whereas on Broadway the press is let in over a few day, or a week even, letting them experience the show on a ‘normal’ night. Currently press nights here are usually filled with backers, family, friends and assorted hangers on. I’d rather they be invited to an opening/gala night and the press be left the less glamorous occasion of sitting with the ordinary paying public a few nights before. This would benefit the critics by being with the people that they are writing for, the public, and seeing some genuine reactions for a change. But at the end of the day, much commercial theatre is critic proof, certainly the influence of the critics on commercial shows is negligible, but on more intellectual plays they can be the difference between a half full and a full house. In New York Ben Brantley of The NY Times has immense power, far more than here, and I am glad that one person’s opinion is only part of the picture over here.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Review: A Matter of Life and Death

In 1946 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made a film called ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, in which dashing RAF pilot Peter falls for June, an American Radio Operator who he ‘meets’ whilst his damaged aircraft is about to drop from the sky and he is destined for certain death. But due to an administrative foul up in Heaven he doesn’t die, but lives on to fall in love with June in the flesh, only to be told that he should have been killed in the crash and that he has to go upstairs and face the music after all. The ensuing appeal against this decision is a sweet meditation on life and death (Peter is actually in a coma, being operated on, his life in the balance). It was a great film, (it had David Niven in it for one thing) it was a celebration of life, love and also the Anglo-US alliance. In Emma Rice (who also directs the production) and Tom Morris’s adaptation for the NT and Kneehigh, it has become a po faced (but spectacular) anti war play, with a British June (we can’t have an American, because times have changed! That is what the adaptors have said, seriously), where death triumphs over love.

The trouble is that I want to like Kneehigh productions (they have interesting ways of working and often bring in a more diverse and younger audience), but I invariably find them shallow and obvious (Tristan and Yseult and Cymbeline were both in that category, whereas I actually enjoyed their 2004 version of The Bacchae, also directed by Rice). Here again, the whimsy wins out, this really is a silly and pointless overgrown spectacle, and the anti-American, naturally anti-war stance got my hackles up too (stopping Hitler was so wrong?).

The production is so self-consciously clever, with nurses cycling upside down to replicate the wings of a plane (and nurses cycling the right way up for no apparent reason), swinging beds, a movable band (who play an annoying mix of a mariachi music and soft rock), and a huge brigade of pyjama clad patients (part of an ostentatiously huge cast of 27, including 5 musicians) milling around, with the occasional bucket or bed fire to enliven the proceedings. It’s all very soulless and empty for me, forced cleverness, to try and prove some misanthropic doomed world view, not tell a rather sweet story as in the film. The acting was sometimes competent and sometimes bizarre, especially Gisli Orn Gardarsson as the incompetent ex-magician, Conductor 71, charged with bringing Peter back where he belongs. The sad thing is, that his gurning comical performance was embarrassingly unfunny, contrasting with his brilliant sensitive and un-flashy portrayal of Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis at the Lyric Hammersmith last year.
This is a production full of sound and fury but signifying nothing very interesting at all, and at 135 minutes with no interval it far outstays its welcome

Review: Kindertransport

Over at the Hampstead Theatre, Shared Experience is staging Kindertransport by Diane Samuels, a play about the limited evacuation of 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany in 1939. The play is set in the attic of a Manchester house, where Faith, a young woman is going through boxes of crockery and finds some fascinating documents relating to a child from the kindertransport, seemingly placed with her grandmother. This child turns out to be Faith’s mother Evelyn, who has been hiding this part of herself for all of her adult life. We see Evelyn as a child, then called Eva, being prepared for an uncertain future without her mother. The evocation of the past is done very well and simply in Polly Teal’s spare production. The Ratcatcher of Eva’s fairytale books is also evoked as a menacing spirit, but strangely too as a suffering tormented soul, almost representing in some small way the suffering of the Jews in Germany and tormenting young Eva with those thoughts.

This is a very competent play, telling us an awful tale in a succinct fashion. There are no over the top histrionics, just terrible realisations, and sometime that is the most effective way of conveying hell and death. We don’t see piles of dead bodies, but we see how the life of one girl was so extraordinarily changed in the biggest upheaval of the 20th Century.

National Disaster

I am also deeply concerned at the casual (and not so casual) anti Americanism creeping up on us, open derision bordering on the racist is seemingly acceptable even to the faces of Americans.

I’ve thought his for some time now, but I was forcefully reminded of this last week at the National Theatre. I was about to watch A Matter of Life and Death, a stage version of the 1946 film, in the Olivier Theatre. It’s a Kneehigh co-production with the NT, adapted by Emma Rice (also the show’s director) and Tom Morris (late of BAC, now an NT Associate Director). The film has an English RAF Pilot and an American radio operator fall in love. David Thomas, a journalist hired to write the programme notes, writes: ‘that the girl has been made English for this production is a reflection on changing times’. What! Have times changed so much that Americans no acceptable persons to be characterised in a stage play? The original film celebrated the US-UK alliance, one that is still culturally still strong (however much you disagree with ‘the war’). But of course the USA is such a pariah state that we must shun them? Sure, I don’t like US foreign policy or their current Chief Executive, but this is lunacy. America has given the world so much culturally (too much in some cases, granted) and has admirable aims democratically. The way society is often run there is absolutely against many of my beliefs, but that is their choice and not a reason for hate, don’t forget that there are many millions of good people in the USA who also hate their President. New York is one of my favourite cities (the only one which I would swap London for in fact), a great cultural melting pot and an exciting experience in itself.

I was enlightened further by the writings of Ms Rice in the programme (writing about her Grandfather who served in WWII and to whom the production is dedicated to):

‘my uncle believes that if he had had the education and the support, he (her Granddad) would have been a conscientious objector’

Well, what an insulting and disgusting thing to say. So all the ill educated oiks of this land who fought Hitler and fascism, who fought to save Europe from total domination fought for nothing? If only the poor fools had education they’d down weapons right away.

Well, my grandfather may not have had education, but he was a clever man. He hated war, but was proud of what was done in WWII, he wouldn’t talk about it often, but he told me how he felt occasionally.

Then Rice goes on to a hyperbolic statement equating the Second World War with the Iraq conflict, each as useless as the other she implies. Gosh, how trivially she throws away the evil of Hitler and the Nazis. I can’t treat history in the caviller and selfish way she does. Thank god (or would God Bless America be more appropriate?).

Her whole approach and attitude is so warped that it’s no wonder her production left me quite cold (a review is on its way).

Political Theatre

Talking of Gordon, what about political theatre itself. It’s thriving many people would say. Well, I’m not so sure. One political view dose not a political theatre scene make, polemical theatre, yes. We in the UK, especially amongst certain people in London, have become cynical haters of our ruling classes, they can never be sincere, they can never be right is the message. No real debate about the state of the nation or achievements or otherwise of said despicable rulers is possible. If you listened to Pinter or Hare you’d think we were being ruled by a fascist junta who regularly mow people down in the streets. That’s not to say concerns over civil liberties, war and our relationship with the US are not valid, just that hyperbolic denunciations are not helpful to a mature political discourse.
I’m a liberal left wing person, of course I am, I like culture. All nice people who like culture are left wing liberals, no? Well, no actually. But none the less, I don’t despise or hate the (liberal left of centre) government (who are certainly not ‘just like the Tories’, minimum wage, devolution and gay rights for starters), neither do I think all politicians are in it for themselves or sleazy scumbags. I think politics is generally full of people trying to do their best, but the old adage ‘politics is show business for ugly people’ probably does ring true to a certain extent. But then you can have a healthy ego and still care about people (I hope).

My concern is that theatre contributes to the general cynicism and disengagement with the political process; it might be a ‘political’ play, but it just panders to the cynics and turns everyone off any further debate. When of course theatre could be a forum for genuine ideas and debate, or are we too complacent over out domestic situation to care much about debate these days? I just feel putting on yet another anti war play to an audience full of pre converted zealots is a rather pointless and boring exercise, as is the frequent vilification of Tony Blair in particular. I think a main problem in this is that we don’t really see big domestic issue plays; we see the much more attractive international/war plays more often. People like them, they are morally certain of the position they will take and you can leave the theatre feeling all self righteous (‘we went on the march darling’). In Edinburgh last year it was hard to avoid plays about Iraq (some were good, others bad).

It is simply for the reason that I am so interested in politics, and feel it so important, that I would like a reassessment of the way politics appears onstage

Olympic Funding

The issue of cutting funding for the arts and culture because of the 2012 Olympic beast has been much discussed recently (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6583657.stm). I’m still very angry, and I think you should be too.

Firstly the Olympics is supposed to boost culture with a ‘Cultural Olympiad’, being organised by The Southbank Centre’s Jude Kelly, to date she’s quite tight lipped as to what this means (yes, a festival of kultcha, I know!). I’m all for a showcase of British and international culture to coincide with the Olympics (we’ll have to have some distraction from the boring sports after all), but it would be madness to cut steady funding for a (relatively) thriving arts sector in the years preceding the games, only to make a short term tokenistic attempt to boost culture around the time of the Olympics itself. Much better that managed long(ish) term funding of at least the present levels are maintained, and that from this the Cultural Olympiad emerges. Perhaps with a little bit of help from the Olympic budget nearer the time to put the required ‘big events’ on with. For example, the RSC’s complete works festival could easily be the type of thing that would be perfect for the Olympiad, and that’s already been done on current funding, ditto the forthcoming Anthony Gormley exhibition at The Hayward Gallery (I love the view from Waterloo Bridge and The Festival Hall terrace, trying to spot all the sculptures).

Secondly, by cutting funding, the Government will erase a legacy or real achievement in the arts. It’s not perfect, but arts funding now is a hell of a lot better then pre 1997. One aspect of this transformation that I know of first hand is regional theatre, I currently travel around the country often to catch the essential and important work being done around the country (and I miss half of it). If this were 1987 not 2007, would I be travelling to Sheffield to see brilliant classics in The Crucible and innovative new work in The Studio? Would I be a regular visitor to Leeds and The West Yorkshire Playhouse, would I be at The Manchester and Brighton Festivals for several interesting events each year. No! Yes, places like The Royal Exchange (and many other venerable institutions) did exist, but now we have a vibrant theatre scene across the country which includes new and non commercial work. Here the commercial pressures of (and dumbing down of) the West End can be left behind, careers can be forged and talent spotted (alongside commercial theatre; thriller tours and musicals etc). I’m not saying it is easy for young actors, writers or directors, but there are outlets looking for just that; emerging talent (and indeed looking to employ fully fledged talent more often). I recently went back to Derby to see Merrily We Roll Along, there was an enthusiastic matinee audience and growing familiarity with Sondheim at that address because the artistic director has made a decision to put on a quality Sondheim production each year. Would that have happened in 1997? I won’t even start on the brilliant National Theatre of Scotland, who, in such a short time have become essential viewing (Blackwatch, The Wonderful World of Dissocia and Aalast anyone?).

Some of my greatest nights out have been at regional productions. Don Carlos and Lear at the Sheffield Crucible rank amongst the finest work I have ever seen on stage. I urge the Government not to cut the lifeblood of the theatre; grassroots and community organisations. If the small guys suffer, eventually the whole industry will suffer, and more importantly access to good theatre around our country will suffer.
Come on Gordon, have a heart….

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Review: Elling

Elling at The Bush Theatre is a delightful Norwegian play adapted by Simon Bent (Under The Black Flag at The Globe last year) from a novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen (he could be the Norwegian Martin Amis/JK Rowling for all I know) and directed by Paul Miller (French without Tears and Total eclipse recently). I attended a packed Saturday matinee of the play, packed due to the presence of John Simm, who recently starred in the TV hit ‘Life on Mars’. And I have to say that Mr Simm acquits himself brilliantly and surely lives up to the expectations of even his most ardent fan.
The play, a comedy of manners ultimately, revolves around an unlikely pair of men brought together in a mental institution and their eventful release into the Norwegian equivalent of ‘care in the community’ in Oslo. Simm plays our eponymous hero, a mass of nerves, insecurities and tics, but also a secret talent for poetry. His flatmate and friend Bjarne, a huge simple orang-outang (as he styles himself) like man, is brilliantly portrayed by Adrian Bower (C4’s Teachers). But Simm must get the ultimate acting credits for a totally believable performance, no mean feat in a very comical play. Simm and Bower’s interaction is a joy to watch, their tempers may fray but their care for one another always shines through, in the end they simply need each other. The support is solid; Jonathan Cecil as an elderly poet, Keir Charles as a right on social worker and Ingrid Lacey as Bjarne’s pregnant love interest. There are some brilliantly funny moments (especially telephone related), and the whole play is rather touching. You certainly leave the theatre with a satisfied grin

Stage on Screen

If any of you have seen Spider Man 3, you’ll know how badly the Broadway stage is represented by Mary-Jane’s (Kirsten Dunst) appearance in a 4th rate musical. Indeed it is the kind of old fashioned entertainment that would make a 1950’s chorus girl blush. Mary-Jane also appeared in a lamentable version of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in a previous episode of the film (I think it was that play, it was hard to tell).Why oh why do film directors represent the stage in such anachronistic and shouty ways? It’s hardly as if they’re worried that hoards of blockbuster fans will be running to their local theatres, eschewing the multiplex, just because theatre is portrayed positively.

But I do think that there actually is a real belief amongst many people (some Hollywood directors included) that theatre is really like that- old fashioned and static. This kind of portrayal does put people off going to see a show, and more importantly thinking theatre is ‘not for them’.

When I go to the cinema (and I am a big fan) I am always telling my companions which stage productions I have seen x or y actor in. Their interest if often nil (I have some great friends), they simply do not see the theatre as relevant. When I saw Catherine McCormack in ‘28 Weeks Later’ at the cinema on Friday my friend was not impressed at her stage cv (perhaps partly because the film is awful) or in ever seeing her work again. It’s a shame that you have to be a mega celebrity to make a major impact in the theatre, people should follow our own theatre regulars in their big (and small) screen careers, and indeed welcome them back to a stage where they are equally appreciated.

Review: Terre Haute

As I'm recommending Terre Haute at the Trafalgar Studio, I looked up my short revew from when I saw the production in Edinburgh last year.

By the way, my archive can be seen at: http://www.theatreguys.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/webdraft_000057.htm

''A terrific new play, Terre Haute, by Edmund White (noted as the USA’s foremost gay writer) about the Okalahoma City Bomber closed my fringe festival. White has taken the real relationship between urbane novelist Gore Vidal and hick bomber Timothy McVeigh as the inspiration for a fictional meeting between the two men (albeit with a change of name) in death row in the run up to the execution. In real life Vidal had a very controversial sympathy with the anti federal message of McVeigh, although he condemned the bombing. The two corresponded, and Vidal was even due to attend the execution, but ill health prevented the two ever meeting. White uses this as an opportunity to discuss the rights and wrongs of the US Government, her Empire, and the freedom of her citizens (McVeigh believing that he had ‘watered the tree of liberty with blood’). The extraordinary differences between these two men with their evident bond are fascinating, clearly the Vidal character has a sexual fascination with this young man, and for his part the bomber uses his intriguing sexuality to influence the elderly writer. A relevant and beautifully written play''. Aug 2006

Regional Audiences

I don’t actually mean regional audiences; I actually mean Chichester and Stratford-Upon-Avon audiences and the towns themselves.

When I’m in Sheffield, Leeds or Manchester (not to mention the sublimely civilised Edinburgh) for a play or several I’m in good hands, I’m generally able to eat and drink in reasonable places at reasonable times. Nice cities each and every one- ‘regeneration’ I believe it’s called.

Not so in the august towns of Stratford and Chichester. At least Chichester is not claming to be the centre of the universe; it’s basically a tidy, small, quiet town. But Stratford is constantly ram packed with tourists wanting to see where the great man lived and died. Frankly when I meet tourists in London I tell them to avoid Stratford like the plague, unless they are actually seeing a show. There a far more pleasing, important and interesting things to do in London than in Stratford, where you’ll probably end up in M&S or eating Greggs sandwiches with a million other visitors on the crowded river bank. But, heaven forbid, you should want a meal after the show! Very few restaurants are open then. And if you need a bottle of water to take back to your hotel room there is nowhere to purchase it. Is this just a jaded London lad complaining about regional inadequacies, maybe. But I do genuinely think one of our biggest tourist attractions should pull its socks up and start being a bit more attractive. The best thing about Stratford is basically the RSC, and more specifically the actors. A night post play at The Dirty Duck listening to their conversations is great fun.

Anyway, back to the subject of my rant; audiences. In Chichester I am usually the youngest person present by at least 40 years (bar the occasional Tristan dragged there by mater and pater). But honestly, with their conservative programming by Jonathan Church, will they ever attract a younger crowd (though I do understand Church is protecting the short term future of the theatre with conservative choices)? Plus I generally find audiences there so pleased with themselves, braying and far more obnoxious than your average London crowd. Also they all drive, try walking out of the Festival Theatre into the town after a show, you simply can’t cross the road because of the stream of traffic (‘polite’ rich elderly people do not let pedestrians cross the road, contrary to popular belief).

As for Stratford, again the grey hair brigade is out in force (by the way, I have nothing against those with grey hair, I just wish that younger and less affluent people were also in the audience. Plus, without the grey hair brigade the economy of the theatre would be shot, so thanks to them). But this time you have to beware of lethal danger; the talkative American student. They come by the busload and make ostentatious notes, and many can’t resist giving out those little nuggets of psychoanalysis during the show (or even clarifying the plot). Yes, you understand Shakespeare, well done!

Wherever I go I am sensitive to the mood of the audience, sometimes with the cast, and some more lethargic or even sceptical. But being privileged enough to be part of the audience so regularly I wouldn’t change it for the world!

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Diversity

Most people would agree that diversity is a good thing, especially in the sometimes claustrophobic world of the theatre.

However, should diversity mean theatrical apartheid? Whilst I applaud specific theatre companies and programmes aimed at enfranchising certain communities, I don’t think this is a substitute for more ‘mainstream’ theatres reflecting the real and diverse world we live in (perhaps a black face in a restoration comedy at a regional rep for example, or it not being a ‘talking point’ if an Asian plays a Shakespearian lead).

Tonight I was at The Hampstead for Kindertransport, a play about Jewish children brought to the UK just before the Second World War to escape the Nazi horrors. It didn’t surprise me that much of the audience were Jewish, in fact hearing people describe their family members being killed in the Holocaust during the interval brought the horror of events not just onto the stage in front of me, but right into the seat next to me (plus good theatre should stimulate debate and engage the mind).

But, when I see play’s dealing with certain groups, more often than not the majority of the audience are likewise Irish/Black/Gay/Asian etc. Whilst I understand the urge to see a play that is familiar or deals with some aspect of yourself, surely we go to the theatre to find out about other people (and perhaps ourselves through them!)? I have no problem relating the universalities of a Nigerian play to my own experience whilst also learning something about that culture. My enjoyment of a Kabuki evening at Sadler’s Wells was enhanced by a mostly Japanese audience who cheered just like we were in Tokyo. But my concern is that non-ethnic specific drama (modern plays or classics) be seen as ‘white’ drama, perhaps as an extension of the myth that theatre is only for the rich (already putting off a whole other section of society).

In fact drama and the theatre belongs to no one (but, yes, it does help if you can afford to buy a ticket. But that’s another posting…), we can all get different things of out different experiences. I remember being at the Indian Twelfth Night at The Albery Theatre a couple of years ago, the matinee audience was packed with multi ethnic inner London school kids. At the interval they all animatedly talked about the production, what the language meant, how the story would progress ect. This was purely the words of The Bard onstage, with a bit of Indian spice to jazz up the production (which worked very well), but I had no doubt that those children with races and religions from all over the world would have engaged with any exciting/decent staging of the play.

So how do we get the enthusiastic minority audiences to go to other events? I’ve rarely seen a non white face in the West End or Royal Court for example (perhaps those audiences should experiment more too). I don’t have the answer, and would welcome any comments. But I can say that fostering a theatre culture in schools is vital. Privileged kids already get taken to the theatre, what we need to do is ensure that the most disadvantaged children get to see a play. I think some system whereby the treasury gave VAT refunds to theatres to the equivalent value of tickets distributed to local schools, would be a cheap and easy(ish) way of doing this. The theatre gives so much revenue to the UK economy (and, more importantly, is so significant culturally), in many guises, that its long-term future (i.e. the next generation of theatregoers) should be secured.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Sean’s pick of the week:

Terre Haute, Trafalgar Studio 2. Gripping imagined conversations between Gore Vidal and Oklahoma Bomber Timothy McVeigh on the eve of his execution.
The Lady from Dubuque, Theatre Royal Haymarket. Fascinating, intriguing (and funny) drama by Edward Albee with Dame Maggie Smith.
Evita, Adelphi. Last chance to see Argentine dynamo Elena Roger as the first lady of them all.
Landscape with Weapon, NT Cottesloe. New Joe Penhall play about the morals of the arms industry with the excellent Tom Hollander. Thought provoking and not hectoring.
Total Eclipse, Menier. Last weeks for the Christopher Hampton play about the romantic poets Rimbaud and Verlain. Daniel Evans shines in this somewhat flawed production.

Reviews: The Last Confession & Office Suite

There's another regional double bill for you over at Chichester. At the main house, The Festival Theatre, a new play by first time playwright and New York lawyer Roger Crane, The Last Confession. The play explores the possible murder of Pope John Paul I in 1978; he only reigned for 33 days and it is said was planning to dismiss many of the more reactionary elements of the Curia (effectively the Vatican Government). The play is hopelessly old fashioned, framing device, dialogue and all. You could happily compare it to a Vatican-set Agatha Christie (as the director does in the programme notes), and Hercule Poirot himself, David Suchet, plays the lead role, Cardinal Benelli, moderniser and friend to Pope John Paul I and kingmaker in two Papal Conclaves. Despite its flaws The Last Confession is actually an engaging couple of hours, partly because you are always having to digest new information about how things work and following the motivations of the Cardinals, who is voting for who, etc, and partly because of a brilliant performance from Mr Suchet. The costumes are also highly entertaining, the full panoply of Papal and clerical wear is on show; The Pontiff in White, Cardinals in their blood red capes and curates in black gowns.

Over in the smaller Minerva Theatre, Alan Bennett’s Office Suite (two short plays) gets an undeserved outing. First seen on television in 1978 (also starring Patricia Routledge!), the play is now a museum piece. Focusing on the thrusting new world of work forcing itself into British Offices in the 1970s, Bennett gives us his usual glib universal witticisms and wry observations. In ‘A Visit from Miss Prothero’, Ms Routledge plays the eponymous lady visiting her retired colleague Mr Dodsworth, played admirably by Edward Petherbridge. This is the kind of playlet for people who think Ms Routledge simply entering a room is hilarious, and naturally due to her presence and Mr Bennett’s authorship the play sold out before it opened (it’s going on a regional tour from late May), the conservative Chichester crowd knowing what they like and liking what they know. In ‘Green Forms’, Ms Routledge plays Doreen and Janet Dale plays Doris. Apart from a brief and highly comical appearance from Mr Petherbridge as a inter-office delivery man, we just get Doreen and Doris arguing and then fretting over the appearance of a mystery woman who might be about to make them redundant. In a highly camp flourish at the end of the play this mystery woman is turned into a spitting image of Margaret Thatcher representing the future. I’d just like to point out to director Edward Kemp that most of his audience adore the lady and cheered her heartily. With much of Alan Bennett’s work, especially these pieces, I can’t help feeling they are a celebration of anachronistic and rather petty attitudes (like the small minded Mrs Prothero being turned into a comic heroine), rather than a genuine exploration of a place and time. Not a show that I would recommend to anyone with anything other than middle to polite low brow tastes!

Reviews: RSC King Lear and The Seagull

I start with one of the greatest plays ever written, in a production sold out well before previews even started due to one factor alone: star quality. Sir Ian McKellen, despite his Hollywood fame (Lord of the Rings, X-Men, The DaVinci Code etc), has kept constant to his theatrical roots and has regularly appeared on stage in the last few years (his hilarious Widow Twanky in The Old Vic’s Aladdin and starring in an excellent production of ‘Dance of Death’ to name but two). So it was with much anticipation that I took my seat at the RSC’s temporary main house, The Courtyard Theatre (The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is being rebuilt to a thrust stage design similar to this temporary auditorium), for his King Lear, directed by fellow theatre royalty (former NT and RSC boss) Sir Trevor Nunn. This is Nunn’s third production of Shakespeare’s great meditation on morality, old age and human weakness. Not having been alive for those productions I can’t judge what Sir Trevor has added to this staging, but I can say that the sum of its parts is not wholly satisfactory, certainly many volts short of his electric Hamlet at the Old Vic in 2002.

When you have seen a great Lear you leave the theatre devastated and on the edge of tears (as I was with David Warner at Chichester last year), but at the conclusion of this Lear I was impressed with Sir Ian, but not so enamoured by the lumpy production. Sir Trevor has set his Lear in late 19th/early 20th Century Tsarist Russia, echoing perhaps his production of The Seagull in rep with the same company of actors, which I will discuss later. The Courtyard’s huge thrust stage is not ideal for painting an intimate stage picture- indeed proscenium arch theatre at the RSC is now consigned to history (for example I can’t imagine Rupert Goold's thoughtful arctic staging of The Tempest of last season being possible on such a stage). This space presents a problem for Sir Trevor. The production is, mostly, directed to fit happily on a more traditional stage with a little bit of elongation to fill the Courtyard space (the production tours America and will possibly go to the West End, which may be part of the reason), with actors often self-consciously turning from one side of the stage to the other to address the auditorium, and when minor characters or servants are required they often block the view for a section of the audience. Much of the main action is played downstage in a small area mimicking a pro arch stage. In other words the thrust staging hampers the play and does not lend it extra intimacy as alleged by the pro thrust stage brigade. When I saw the Henry VI trilogy in the same space earlier this year it absolutely worked, the movement, physicality and vitality of the production enveloped the whole stage - this is simply not possible with Lear. As a backdrop to the play we have a monumental decaying ballroom wall with balcony (perhaps even a Victorian theatre?), which is nearly totally unused; pretty but pointless.

The Russian tinted theme worked reasonably well; that is to say it wasn’t intrusive or dominating of the play itself (but then again no particular relevance was added by this choice, perhaps a slightly bland setting). One of the most successful visual aspects of the production was Nunn’s invention: a silent pre dialogue appearance on stage by Lear dressed in gold robes and an eastern crown, wherein his courtiers drop to their knees in dread adoration of their monarch, beautifully setting up Lear as a man of authority just before you see him give that majesty and authority away. McKellen himself gives us a brilliant portrait of vulnerability, firstly by desperately needing his daughters to speak their love rather than just show it, and then by his mental and physical suffering at the hands of those same children. Sir Ian’s bewildered state towards the end of the play was genuinely affecting, it was just that the other players performance and the pathos needed were absent. On the down side of Sir Ian’s performance, it can tend to be a little fussy and even frenetic at times, too many tics and shakes in some scenes, and the relevance and impact of his nakedness at one point, is highly debatable.

Jonathan Hyde’s Kent was loud and declamatory for most of the play, and none of the daughters made a great impact on me (in mitigation Francis Barber was out of the production suffering a leg injury but her understudy was perfectly adequate). William Gaunt’s Gloucester was as great as you would expect from this stage veteran, growing in moral stature as the play went on. Unfortunately his bastard son Edmund (Philip Winchester) was wooden and awkward as our villain. His legitimate brother Edgar was, however, a brighter spot - Ben Meyjes (from Phaedra at The Donmar) gave the part a reality that his stage sibling could not match. The Fool for me was totally wrong - Sylvester McCoy and his rough performance did not in any way convey the affection between Lear and his jester that can be present in a great portrayal. McCoy was fidgety, high pitched and insisted on constantly playing the spoons, when a more thoughtful character is required to guide Lear to bitter truths. Another of Sir Trevor’s innovations is to hang the fool as a dramatic climax to send us off to the interval. Shakespeare certainly did not explicitly kill off the Fool at the end of Act III, and there has always been debate as to his fate after that. I though the Fools hanging was unnecessary and rather sensationalist, and indeed misleading to those who don’t know the play. To add another annoyance to my experience, the star-struck audience seemed to want to have a great time so much that they needed to laugh constantly (to show they understood perhaps?), but Lear nearly striking Cordelia was certainly no place for a laugh in my view; it was a tragic moment of growing mental collapse. All in all a good Lear, but not a great production.

King Lear is presented in rep with The Seagull, also at The Courtyard Theatre. Here Frances Barber’s absence was more keenly felt. Her role of Arkadina, the self absorbed Moscow actress and mother of Konstantin, is central to the play, and a great actress in the role can make or break a production. Barber’s understudy/substitute Melanie Jessop (also her Lear understudy) was, again, perfectly adequate in the role, and good at times, but did not provide half the performance that I had hoped of Ms Barber (but then again, that’s just supposition). Konstantine the troubled son, relegated to a life in the sticks on the family estate, whilst his mother lives it up in the City, is the other role that usually makes or breaks this play. Richard Goulding (fresh from drama school) was simply not up to the task. His mannered and non-natural delivery just did not flow, I felt no real emotion was present in Konstantine, just surface bluster. Mr Goulding is also not the physical type (slightly stocky and slightly ginger) I would expect for the fragile and angry young Russian, a man who wants the revolution in art to start today. I’m not saying that looks should bar anyone from playing a role if they have the talent and clear abilities to overcome the superficial, but when they haven’t, looks at least help. With the clear deficiencies in the main roles, the heart of the play for me shifted to the usually secondary characters, and particularly a superlative performance by Sir Ian McKellen as Sorin, Arkadina’s ailing elderly brother (Sir Ian alternates the role with William Gaunt). Sir Ian so beautifully portrays the old bureaucrat with a passion to have some sort of life before it really is over; he gives us a humorous old man with a glint in his eye, but an emotional intelligence when needed. Indeed, Sir Trevor’s production felt funnier and more zippy than other productions of the play I have seen, a lightness of touch that recognises Chekhov doesn’t have to be gloomy and sombre all the time. Another good performance from Ben Meyjes in the small role of Medvedenko, the unloved and overlooked teacher, and a vast improvement from his Kent in Lear from Jonathan Hyde as Dorn the charming doctor, whose fondness for Konstantine was obvious. Shamreyev the bumptious Estate Manager was played with boorish relish by Guy Williams, completing the well cast and well played lesser roles. So, extraordinarily, despite the absence of Ms Barber and the deficit of Konstantine, I can still judge The Seagull an instructive and enjoyable night at the theatre.