Tag Archives: National Theatre Live

Doggone It!

National Theatre Live Broadcast, Thursday 6th September, 2012

Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s much-loved bestseller is nigh on perfect. Translating what is largely an ‘internal’ book to the stage, the production is deceptively simple. There is no set to speak of. Actors bring on and take off nondescript white boxes to serve as tables, chairs, seats on a train, a walk down an escalator… Lighting defines sharp squares and oblongs for different rooms, different houses. Performed in the round, the design for this show is all about the floor. Marked up with a grid (that reminded me of Star Trek’s holodeck!) the stage is riddled with LEDs that both lead and trail the protagonist on his journey. Projections help to convey the impression of a tube station, a train ride and so on. It is all both complex and economical.

But of course it is the actors who are the keys to open up this story of a teenager on the Asberger’s syndrome trying to solve the mystery of who murdered his neighbour’s dog with a garden fork. As 15 year old Christopher, Luke Treadaway is both magnetic and a little disturbing. This is no white-washed sentimental portrayal. We understand his parents’ frustrations and admire his mentor’s patience, all the while caring for this boy. His direct and literal approach to life amuses; his violent rejection of physical contact touches us. It is a remarkable portrayal.

As mentor Siobhan, Niamh Cusack also doubles as a narrator. It is revealed as the action unfolds that we are watching a dramatisation – the whole play is a play-within-a-play, cranking up the cleverness level. Along the way we meet a host of characters, walk-ons and cameos, and it is particularly delightful to see Una Stubbs, bright-eyed as ever, as elderly neighbour Mrs Alexander.

Marianne Elliott’s direction keeps a complex set-up clear, working the cast like cogs in a super-efficient machine. Movement sequences are particularly effective, stylised in such a way to be evocative and supportive of the narrative.

Now, some people are rather snobbish about the whole enterprise of live broadcasts to cinema screens. Everyone should go to London and see the shows live, they say. Well, I’m sure everyone would if they could (as if the scramble for National Theatre tickets isn’t bad enough already). But for occasions when that is not possible, a trip to the local cinema is a more-than-adequate substitute. With this particular production it could be argued that the cinema audience actually gains something – as well as affording us close-ups of the actors, we also get bird’s-eye views of the stage, making the projections and floor work perfectly clear. What you lose on the swings of being present for the live experience, you gain on the roundabouts of multi-angle cameras.

Writing With The Enemy

National Theatre Live Broadcast, Thursday 1st December, 2011

Nicholas Hytner directs this new piece in-the-round at the Cottesloe. While this doesn’t really come across in the cinema broadcast (only rarely do we glimpse audience members) there is still a sense that the characters, in Stalin’s Moscow, are being watched all the time.

Playwright Bulgarkov (Alex Jennings) is an “enemy of the State”, his work about Moliere is deemed to be subversive and is forced to close on its opening night. In order for it to be staged again, Bulgarkov is blackmailed by a secret policeman (Mark Addy) into dramatising the early years of their glorious leader’s life, as a surprise birthday present. Addy’s persuasive techniques include mock executions and so, understandably, Bulgarkov agrees.

A mysterious phone call in the night leads Bulgarkov to a secret room beneath the Kremlin where he is met by the man who haunts his recurring nightmares, Stalin himself. The dictator is portrayed by Simon Russell Beale as an avuncular type, a bumbling peasant who has somehow found himself in a position of supreme power. Stalin (Call me Joseph) is brimming with ideas for the play (there are no secrets in his USSR) and before long is sitting at the typewriter and bashing out melodramatic propaganda – We are treated to performances of these scenes, with Young Joseph portrayed as a dashing matinee idol-cum-superhero. So far, so hilarious.

The play takes a darker turn when Joseph asks Bugarkov to occupy himself with some of his burdensome paperwork while he, the dictator, does the playwright’s job. Before long, Bulgarkov is increasing productivity in steel mills and sending soldiers to requisition grain supplies from starving villages with a flourish of a red pencil. At dinner parties, Bulgarkov expresses views that show his sympathies have altered, if not changed altogether. Meanwhile, the people around him are starting to disappear, arrested following orders he authorised.

It transpires that Stalin was behind the whole thing. Rather than imprison or execute the subversive and popular writer, he chose to break him instead, to change his viewpoint through a process of seemingly benevolent attrition. And so, the bumbling uncle is revealed at last to be the sinister figure of Bulgarkov’s nightmares. Bulgarkov dies, his work restored to the Moscow stage, but he is a broken man. “It is a battle between man and monster,” Stalin reminds him, “and the monster always wins.”

This is a remarkable play (the first from screenwriter John Hodge), for its entertainment value and its hard-hitting undertones that gradually seep to the surface. As I reflect on it now, the morning after, I can’t help but see a cheeky parallel with Nick Clegg, slowly infected with the ideology of a monster… Or is that me just being subversive?