Tag Archives: Duncan Macmillan

Flooded with Meaning


Duke of York’s Theatre, London, Saturday 13th July, 2019


Duncan Macmillan’s new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1886 play is flooded with pertinence.  Never mind nineteenth century Norway, many of the lines come across as direct commentary on the state of our nation today, eliciting wry laughter from the audience.  Ibsen-Macmillan make satirical quips, mainly through the mouthpiece of Kroll, a conservative, while sending up that character too.  The public, we are told, vote for feelings not for facts – which accounts for the current mess we’re mired in.

As with all Ibsen, it’s the characters’ personal problems that bring about their downfall.  Dark events in their past always surface and take their toll.  In this one, it’s a year since the suicide (by drowning) of John Rosmer’s wife.  Rae Smith’s elegant, stately set bears the marks of flood damage caused by her body clogging the watermill, the stains as much as a spectre as the memory of the act itself.  Proceedings are beautifully lit by Neil Austin, with daylight starkly streaming through the windows, and lamplight dimly glowing on the murky ancestral portraits that glare down on events.

Tom Burke strikes a plaintive note as widower John Rosmer.  Having lost his faith, he is torn between opposing factions in the upcoming general election, both of which see his pastorhood (if that’s a word) as a vindication of their stance… Burke shows strength in his grief, even if his Hamlet-like indecisiveness causes him to waiver and dither.  Rosmer is clearly in the thrall of his late wife’s best mate and erstwhile nurse, Rebecca West, a thoroughly modern young woman, clawing her way up from nothing and asserting both her independence and her will.  As Rebecca, Hayley Atwell is a Marvel (pun intended).  The former Agent Carter from the Captain America films gives a sparky performance – we like her immediately, and when the Truth comes to light, and she makes impassioned defences of her questionable actions, we admire her, even if we don’t agree with her.  It’s easy to see how Rosmer is enchanted.

Giles Terera is nothing short of superb as sardonic Governor Kroll.  Assured to the point of smarminess, he makes witty observations that mask his ruthlessness and objectionable politics.  There is sterling support from Lucy Briers as housekeeper Mrs Helseth, and Peter Wight puts in a memorable turn as bedraggled radical Ulrik Brendel, more like a homeless Michael Foot than a Jeremy Corbyn.  Finally, Jake Fairdbrother’s tabloid newspaper editor Peter Mortensgaard makes a brief but effective appearance.  The play has no love for newspaper owners nor those who believe what they read in the papers – again, the prescience of the piece is uncanny.  Or perhaps it’s just dismaying to note that society has not moved on in a century, people have not improved – and it’s the same the whole world over.

A stunning production with more laughs than you might expect, culminating in personal tragedy, the net having tightened around the characters until they feel they have no other option.  The final moment is brilliantly realised.  Perhaps director Ian Rickson is also addressing global issues here.  Unless we radically change our ways, we will very soon find ourselves in deep water.


Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke (Photo: Johan Persson)


Orwell That Ends Well


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 16th October, 2013


Any mention of this book gives rise to comments about what a visionary Orwell was and every generation is able to find parallels in its own society, saying dear old George predicted this or warned against that.  And it’s true: our surveillance society (there are more CCTV cameras in England than anywhere else), proposals to monitor the internet and police access to certain types of site, how freely we surrender personal information to websites and supermarket loyalty schemes… The thought police are in the shadows, wearing the outrage of the politically correct brigade and we are invited to police each other through schemes like CrimeStoppers and Shop-a-Scrounger.  There is manipulation of the masses through propaganda and lies perpetrated by the media… Orwell is not far off the mark and his 1984-world is not far away.

What Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation does is give the story an additional spin.  It begins with protagonist Winston Smith daring to write in his diary, but he is like a ghost, a spectre present at a kind of book club at which a group of people intellectualise about the nature and meaning of the book itself.  To them, (as to us) the book is a thing of the past. It’s a framing device that is a little disconcerting to begin with but eventually the story proper gets under way and the Orwellian world is revealed to us gradually.

Mark Arends is appealing and vulnerable as Winston, the everyman of the piece, awakening to the truth – or the truth as it is presented to him in order to trap him… His mindfuck is our mindfuck.   He meets Julia (a striking Hara Yannas) for a bit of sex and chocolate in a love nest around the back of an antiques shop.  Some scenes happen off-stage and we witness them on a large video screen that forms the backdrop of the set, casting us in the role of Big Brother, watching these private moments.   Later, during Winston’s torture, he cries out to us, begging us not to sit there and let this happen.  It’s a startling moment of breaking the fourth wall, as if we weren’t uncomfortable enough by this point.

At the end we return to the framing device – people in the future discussing the book.  Orwell’s society has come and gone, they seem to think.  Or has it?  Does The Party now operate in more subtle ways?  One leaves the theatre tending to agree…

Headlong Theatre’s startling production is intriguing from the start and downright gripping by the finish.  Chloe Lamford’s set design explodes from institutional wood panelling to the stark and featureless nowhere of Room 101, aided considerably by Natasha Chivers’s lighting.  The piece is not just a symposium – it’s a highly theatrical experience, a powerful and inventive presentation of a well-known story.

One line lingers with me in particular and it’s not “Big Brother is watching” or “What’s in Room 101?” as hijacked by popular culture; it’s “We didn’t ought to have trusted them” and it haunts me as the media remain silent about NHS privatisation and promulagate lies about the welfare system, and all the other cruelties inflicted on people by governments the whole world over.  “People are not going to revolt,” says the torturer-in-chief smugly, “They’re not going to look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s going on.”

Absolutely chilling.