Tag Archives: Ian Rickson

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)




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)



In The Club


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.