Tag Archives: Kevin Harvey

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)


Bloody Marvellous

TITUS ANDRONICUS

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 28th May, 2013

 

A box office hit in Shakespeare’s day, this Roman revenge tragedy packs more into its two-and-a-half hours than an entire series of The Jeremy Kyle Show.  It’s got the lot: murder, betrayal, mutilation, rape, and of course revenge.  It’s grisly, gory and gruesome, sordid, squalid and shocking.  And it’s bloody funny.

Stephen Boxer is in the title role as a man already steeped in tragedy and grief: most of his 25 sons have been killed in the wars he fights on Rome’s behalf.  The rest meet their doom pretty quickly.  Two are framed and executed for murder.  Another dies at Titus’s own hand in an almost casual neck-breaking scene.  Life is rough in this supposedly civilised empire.

Titus sacrifices a son of captive Goth queen Tamora, setting in motion a tit-for-tat vendetta that escalates to a blood bath in the final scene.  Katy Stephens is striking and strident as the queen with a grudge.  Fierce and fearsome – you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.  As with Boxer’s Titus, there is relish in the exacting of her revenge.

Titus’s brother Marcus (Richard Durden) is the calm voice of reason in the unfolding carnage.  His scene with the mutilated Lavinia (Rose Reynolds) is very moving.  Reynolds is the car crash you can’t help looking at.  Her agonies are fascinating.  With hands cut off and tongue torn out, she tries to smash and eat a boiled egg.  Horror and pity vie for dominance in the spectator.

Kevin Harvey brings a Merseyside twang to the villainous Aaron; his malevolence is not quite matched by Tamora’s sons, two chavs in hoodies riding bicycles and waving knives around (Perry Millward and Jonny Weldon).  You aren’t sorry to see them strung upside down, their throats slit and drained like pigs – This is the main theme of the piece.  Justice has been usurped by vengeance.  The punishments meted out on both sides could have been devised by the subscribers of certain Facebook pages.

Director Michael Fentiman sets his production in a sort of timeless, undefined space, using images we recognise from contemporary life and history.  Cowled monks in black mingle with big-haired women in biker boots. The soldiers’ tunics combine the historical and the contemporary.  The Emperor’s Italian suit is classic – John Hopkins’s Saturninus is an indulgent, immature figure, a comical bully.

I also liked Matthew Needham as Titus’s noble son Lucius but it is Boxer who dominates. His powerful grief turns to powerful madness before our very eyes.  When it all kicks off at the end, when it is revealed that Tamora has been tucking into her own sons baked in a pie, when everyone jumps from their places at table and the bloodshed is a fast and furious free-for-all, it’s a cathartic release that brings about a swift resolution to what constitutes the worst (or best) episode of Come Dine With Me in history.

The Elizabethans were more accustomed to brutality in the streets and public executions and all of that kind of thing.  This production shows us how we must guard against this violence and bloodlust.  “Thou art a Roman,” Marcus admonishes early on, “Be not barbarous.”

Tamora (Katy Stephens) puts on the dog. (Photo: Simon Annand)

Tamora (Katy Stephens) puts on the dog. (Photo: Simon Annand)