Tag Archives: Ben Whishaw

For

AGAINST

Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 16th September, 2017

 

Luke is a billionaire whose companies are at the forefront of technological development: IT, space travel, you name it.  When he receives a ‘message from God’ he decides to change his ways and become more pro-active in changing the world for the better.  There are shades of Bill Gates’s philanthropy here, along with touches of Elon Musk and, not forgetting cult of Steve Jobs, as Luke visits sites of school shootings among other places, talking to people and trying to help them connect in ways that don’t necessarily involve a screen.

Ben Whishaw, always magnetic, imbues Luke with a quiet but compelling presence, complete with nerdish tics.  He is a messianic figure without the bombast and declamations.  And he is fallible.  His encounters are a learning process for him at least as much as those he meets.  Strong yet vulnerable, outgoing but reserved and isolated, Whishaw is utterly compelling.

Played out in a stylish but sparse setting of polished floorboards, Christopher Shinn’s new play proves thought-provoking and engaging; director Ian Rickson keeps his cast naturalistic on a mostly empty stage, with only scene captions and the odd piece of furniture to say where we are.  The performances are top notch across the board and Shinn’s ideas are for the most part clearly presented for us to consider.  Technological development is in bed with capitalism; things only change because of money, and those changes are not always beneficial: we visit an internet retail giant called ‘Equator’ and it doesn’t take three guesses to work out which notorious company is being satirised here.  One aggrieved truck driver (an intense Gavin Spokes) provides the tense denouement of what is otherwise an interesting outlay of ideas, bringing a dramatic and devastating conclusion.

Among the excellent ensemble supporting Whishaw is Amanda Hale, doubling as Sheila, Luke’s PA, and Kate, his middle-school crush.  Philippe Spall is likeable drug-dealer (!) Chris, while Naomi Wirthner brings dignity in her role as the mother of a school shooter.  Kevin Harvey’s sex-worker-cum-professor is sarkily humorous: poor Luke can’t do right for doing wrong as his every move and statement are pounced on by political correctness.  The play gives us some idea of how Christ himself might be received in this day and age.

Funny, provocative, and intelligent, Against is very much a play for today.  Shinn has captured something of the zeitgeist and the Almeida serves it up in a classy and engaging production that respects the intelligence of the audience.

Ben Whishaw Against

He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very pretty boy. Ben Whishaw as Luke (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 

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Wine, Women and Song

BAKKHAI

Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 22nd March, 2015

 

This new version of Euripides’s tragedy by Anne Carson has more laughs than you might expect. Observations about wine and women being a bad mix, for example, bring bathos to high drama and round out the humanity of the characters – this we can relate to if not their extraordinary circumstances. The staging is simple: distant hills are suggested by mounds, over which the cast clamber and stalk like goats, and the mechanics of the theatre are brought into use without artifice: a lighting rig like a flying saucer hovers above the stage, mist billows from a smoke machine…

Out steps Dionysus, god of (among other things) the theatre; the sublime Ben Whishaw captivates from the off. He is more than human, he tells us, and we believe him. Whishaw’s slight physique and rich voice (I’m trying not to think of Paddington Bear) along with a winning smile and androgynous appearance (like Conchita Wurst on her day off) have both appeal and a suggestion of power kept in check. Sly humour twinkles in his baby blues. He has the god’s duality down pat.

Scenes are punctuated by a chorus of nine women. They are acolytes as well as commentators and their timing is impeccable, in their a capella singing and the beating of their staffs. There is a hypnotic quality to them: Orlando Gough’s compositions have a Greco-Baltic feel to them. I expect they will work themselves into ekstasis as the action approaches its gory climax. But they don’t. Pity.

The splendid Bertie Carvel is calm and business-like as King Pentheus, dispensing orders to random members of the audience, “You go and burn his house down”. He is cool-headed and efficient – until, in a scene that foreshadows Pilate and Jesus, he encounters the hippy from Hell in close quarters, and is persuaded to go and witness for himself scenes of Bacchic ritualised mayhem, dressed as a woman. Carvel is dignified and stately in his female garb, like a greying Jerry Hall. He later appears as Pentheus’s mother, Agave, who is brought to realise what a terrible thing she has done to her own son.

Also excellent is Kevin Harvey in a range of parts: the elderly Cadmus, for example. It is the trio of men in the company who convey all the drama about which the chorus of women will comment. The men are the action, the women are the colour and the flavour.

The violence, as is the convention, takes place off-stage and is then described; our imaginations work better than any special effects – leading to a chilling and powerful denouement of sheer horror, as the god metes out his punishments to all and sundry.

It’s the power of the drama that affects, a couple of millennia down the line, in this stark yet engaging production. Whishaw shines, Carvel and Harvey add weight to Anne Carson’s lively and evocative script. James Macdonald’s direction, (using other-worldly sound design by Paul Arditti, and sudden, sharp lighting changes by Peter Mumford) takes us into a fantasy world where the outlandish events can take place. There are links to us: plastic bags, wheeled suitcases and so on, but it’s the human element that hits home.  You could link it with modern-day parallels about the excesses of religiously-motivated violence but for me it’s the longevity of a play and ancient theatrical conventions that strike at us in primal and esoteric ways that, like proud Pentheus, has me in pieces.

I emerge stunned into the Islington sunshine, having been engaged intellectually and emotionally. The line that sticks with me refers to another gift of Dionysus to mankind: “Wine is the cure for being human.” Now, there’s a religion I can relate to!

Divine!  Ben Whishaw as Dionysus (Photo: Mark Brenner)

Divine! Ben Whishaw as Dionysus (Photo: Mark Brenner)


In The Club

MOJO

The Harold Pinter Theatre, London, Saturday 2nd November, 2013

How entirely appropriate that this revival of Jez Butterworth’s 1995 play should be staged at the Harold Pinter!  With its repetitive dialogue, vernacular idioms, pauses, off-stage menace and outbreaks of violence, and not least its sense of humour, this is very much a Pinteresque piece, albeit one on some kind of uppers that may turn one’s urine black.

The setting too is straight from Pinter’s early works.  Two men in suits are waiting in the upstairs room of a Soho club.  They talk about banalities and unseen powerful men in the back room.  Some kind of powwow is under way.  These two are very much a double act throughout the play, sparking dialogue off each other.  It is 1958 and I can’t help thinking of The Dumb Waiter. There is Sid (the excellent Daniel Mays) a bit of a livewire and a man of ideas, and there is Sweets (Rupert Grint – something of a revelation).  It takes some getting used to hearing Ron Weasley talk about ‘minge hair’ and swear like a navvy, but Grint is more than a match for the rest of this more-seasoned cast in his stage debut.

Elder member of the cast, Brendan Coyle as co-owner of the club Mickey tries to keep a lid on the situation when offstage rivals make their move to take over, a move that involves violence of a particularly horrific nature.  Coyle exerts a kind of nervous authority over his younger henchmen, among them is TV’s Merlin, Colin Morgan as Skinny, giving a gripping performance, intense and hilarious in equal measure.  Tom Rhys Harries is club singer Silver Johnny, who has the most demanding role, physically speaking, hanging upside down by his ankles for most of the second act, thanks to the actions of a hypnotically superb Ben Whishaw as resident psychopath Baby.   Whishaw is as deadly as a snake – you can’t take your eyes off him, at turns chilling and then startlingly funny, and always surprising. He is prone to bursting out into full-throated song, leading me to think he should give us his Hedwig (of Angry Inch fame rather than the messenger owl Grint would recognise).

Butterworth’s script gives us Pinter’s Kray Twins-like milieu, with post-Tarantino, post-Guy Ritchie language.  One woman, who in the interval complained about the ‘bad’ language, was among the first to get to their feet at the curtain call to applaud this superior ensemble for a job intriguingly, amusingly, and thrillingly well done.

Ian Rickson directs with an assured handling of the contrasts in pace and tone, flipping moments from one extreme to the other and then back again.  The rhythms of Butterworth’s script come through, the heightened naturalism and also what the characters are not saying between the lines.  It’s all dressed in the evocative designs of Ultz, solidly representing the era and adding credibility to the air of menace.

It’s a revenge play of sorts, darkly funny, and consistently gripping.  Mojo is a brutal couple of hours, but wholly enjoyable, skilfully played by a cast of high calibre.

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Muses muse

PETER AND ALICE

Noel Coward Theatre, London, Saturday 18th May, 2013

 

The premise of John Logan’s new play is ‘what if the boy who inspired Peter Pan and the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland met as grown-ups in real life?’  Logan gives us an answer to this ‘what if’ but also much more.

Peter Llewellyn Davies (Ben Whishaw) is a delicate man, scruffy in his tweed jacket and shapeless slacks.  He encounters Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Judi Dench) as they wait to take part in a talk or lecture about the books that sprang from their relationships with the authors.

As they wait, they compare experiences, what life has been like linked to their literary counterparts, and it soon becomes apparent there is a hint of Lady Bracknell to old Alice.  Peter stands his ground against her but it is clear he is uncomfortable.  Rather than extending this amusing interaction for the whole of the running time, Logan gives us something more fantastical.  The book-ridden waiting room flies away to reveal a set like a Victorian toy theatre.  Drawn figures inhabit the boxes: recognisable as Tenniel’s interpretations of Lewis Carroll characters; the backdrops bring to mind illustrations by the likes of Arthur Rackham and E. Shepherd.  The stage itself is a chess board of black and white squares.  Peter and Alice reminisce, challenging each other’s recollections, and here the play discusses the nature of memory.  “You’re remembering yourself as you are now,” Old Alice chides Peter, “only smaller.”  Memory is coloured by who we are now, what those past events have made us into.

Through their eyes, we meet the Reverend Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie.  The writers are portrayed as eccentric, enthusiastic coves, driven by loneliness.  Peter and Alice consider their relationships with the authors.  There is no case of molestation but they conclude it was some form of abuse, forcing a child to navigate a relationship for which that child isn’t ready.  A kind of emotional abuse, then.

The characters themselves appear; Peter flies in and Alice steps up from a door in the floor.  They are the fictionalised, immortal versions of the man and woman who grew up in their shadow.  They catalogue their adult counterparts’ flaws and failings with childlike directness.  Real world Peter and Alice have a love/hate relationship on the characters they inspired.

They discuss growing up and growing old.  It is absolutely fitting that two characters from everyone’s childhood expound on subjects that are universal.   And so the play moves from re-enacted biography and particular tragedy to something that has emotional resonance with everyone.

Peter Pan (Olly Alexander) and Alice in Wonderland (Ruby Bentall) portray the familiar figures with an almost inhuman quality – up against the ‘real world’ characters, they are understandably two-dimensional and flat.  Stefano Braschi is dapper and amusing as the upper class twit who struggles to propose to Judi Dench, and Nicholas Farrell and Derek Riddell bring more than eccentricity and creepiness to the writers Carroll and Barrie respectively in their sentimental attachments to their young muses.

Judi Dench is sublime as the acerbic Alice, putting aside her walking stick to become the very young girl again, shedding the authority and cantankerousness of age for the innocence and curiosity of youth. Her reaction to news of losing two sons in the First World War is heart-rending.

Ben Whishaw also excels as the damaged Peter, a sad and fragile figure, whose cares melt away when he relives happy moments from childhood.  But the loss of his parents and brothers has affected him irrevocably.   He’s the kind of man you want to shake one minute and sit him down and give him a hearty meal the next. Whishaw gives a poignant performance, thoroughly credible and endearing.

Childhood, says Alice, “gives us a bank of happy memories” against the sorrows that come when we are old.  If we’re lucky, old girl.

It’s a wistful rather than nostalgic production.  Melancholy runs through it but there is also plenty of humour in the dialogue and some rather lyrical and reflective passages.  It’s a strong contender for Best New Play in the theatre awards of my imagination.

Christopher Oram’s set design is evocative and entirely appropriate.  Michael Grandage directs with restraint, giving the script room to breathe.  There is, among others, a beautiful staged scene with old Alice as young Alice with Dodgson in his dark room, developing a photographic plate, immortalising her.  It encapsulates, defines and terminates their relationship – every part of the play operates on several levels: past and present seen through the prism of our own memory and affection for the literary characters.

We cannot help but be moved by the fate of the real-life Peter and Alice, and we leave the theatre with our own memories and sense of mortality pricked by this absorbing and rewarding piece of theatre.

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Watch your Ms and Qs: Alice Liddell meets Peter Pan (Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw)