Tag Archives: National Theatre

Taking a Hedda

HEDDA GABLER

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd January, 2018

 

The National Theatre’s celebrated production is doing the rounds, and it’s a real treat to have such prestigious work on one’s doorstep.  It’s a new version of the Henrik Ibsen masterpiece translating the action into a contemporary setting or, I should say, a kind of timeless setting: the play still has people writing letters to convey important plot points, even though there’s an electronic visitor cam and door buzzer…

Jan Versweyveid’s set is an empty box, ostensibly the yet-to-be-decorated apartment of the newlywed Tesmans.  Sparsely furnished, often its only light source is the huge side window.  It makes for a stark landscape, suitable for any urbane Nordic noir drama… Hedda’s piano feels out of place – just as she does – and her late father’s brace of pistols, already in their own little display cabinet, lend foreboding.  Hedda shoots both them and her mouth off to express her boredom and frustrations.  We realise that the apartment is not so much Hedda’s space as her headspace, and the action takes a more symbolic turn.  By the final act when the other characters are actively boarding up the only window to the world she has, we are beyond the realms of the literal.  Director Ivo van Hove makes bold choices, most of which I approve of, in his presentation of a classic text in a new light.  Ibsen’s (via a Patrick Marber reworking) naturalistic chitchat is underscored by a slowly pulsating, throbbing sound that is disconcerting and ominous, coming to a sudden halt at the moments of high drama – it’s its absence we notice, as Hedda is starkly confronted with turns of events.

Lizzy Watts heads a strong ensemble in the title role.  Her Hedda is headstrong, coldly sarcastic and manipulative.  Having surrendered her own power, her own identity by becoming Mrs Tesman, she seeks to have power over someone else.  We enjoy her barbed outbursts and see her cruelty for what it is.  What I don’t really get is the source of her dissatisfaction: Abhin Galeya’s Tesman is an affable chap, enthusiastic and lively – yes, Tesman’s area of expertise (medieval trug makers) is esoteric and, frankly, dull as ditch water, but that doesn’t make him a basket case.  If, through Hedda’s eyes, we were shown a Tesman more annoying, more gauche, more bookish, we might appreciate more her frustration at having settled for this nerd.  Similarly, Richard Pyros’s Lovborg, doesn’t have, for me, the irresistibly sleazy charisma, the sense of brooding, romantic danger, that gets the ladies’ heads turning.   Annabel Bates is an appealing Mrs Elvsted – even though she’s already left her unsuitable husband (a course of action Hedda doesn’t even consider) – she’s very much the victim role, an innocent caught in Hedda’s web.  Adam Best swaggers and strides as Judge Brack, the male authority role and the villain of the piece.  Seen through the prism of Hedda’s mind, the physical liberties he takes with her become symbolic – he wouldn’t get away with such excesses in their literal sense, one would hope.  Best is enjoyably hateful, tightening his hold on Hedda – no woman can escape the patriarchy, after all…  Christine Kavanagh makes an impression as Tesman’s stylish, interfering Aunt, and Madlena Nedeva’s Berte the maid is a constant presence – a bit like a museum attendant on her seat at the intercom, but also as a kind of familiar to Hedda, silently conjuring props and messages, often unbidden.

It’s a thought-provoking staging that illuminates the Ibsen in such a way we appreciate the richness of the original.  For me, the sense of being trapped doesn’t quite come off at the end.  Perhaps I would have had the walls closing in, almost imperceptibly; Hedda’s vast empty box of an apartment is simply too vast.

A bold production that engages our intelligence rather than packing an emotional punch, it’s certainly worth seeing and, get this: if you’re one of those young people (26 or even younger) you can see the show on tour for merely a fiver!  Definitely worth it.  All you have to do is quote IBSEN5 when you book.

HEDDA GABLERUK Tour 2017/2018
Royal National Theatre London

Keeping a cool Hedda: Lizzy Watts (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

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A Breath of Fresh Eyre

JANE EYRE

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 4th September, 2017

 

The REP’s new season gets off to a flying start with this highly-acclaimed production from the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic.  Adapted from Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel by the original cast, this is a faithful and spirited retelling with a heightened sense of theatricality – without breaking the fourth wall.

On a sparse set of steps, ladders and walkways, the story plays out with director Sally Cookson conjuring up locations, weather, time of day and setting, mainly through her actors, and enhancing effects through judicious use of sound and lighting effects.  What we get is a wealth of invention and creativity that allows the power of the tale to come through.

The eponymous Jane (an indefatigable Nadia Clifford, who doesn’t seem to leave the stage) is orphaned, abused and neglected as a child but never loses her sense of right and wrong or her tendency to speak out.  Her employment as governess to the ward of Mr Rochester at last exposes her to love and life – and the pains that they can bring.  Clifford is a formidable presence, although tiny, she gives voice to Jane’s outbursts; we have no choice but to be on her side through all her tribulations.  Tim Delap is an eccentric Rochester, grumpy and mercurial, yet somehow dashing and irresistible.  The other cast members come and go as supporting characters: Lynda Rooke’s cruel Aunt Reed contrasts with her kindly Mrs Fairfax;  Evelyn Miller provides Jane with rare warmth and friendship as Bessie and then swanks around as the worldly Blanche Ingram.  Special mention must go to Melanie Marshall’s haunting vocals as the unfortunate Bertha Mason, but it is Paul Mundell who almost steals the show as Rochester’s dog, Pilot!

Theatricality is maximised for greatest effect: Jane’s travels are energetically depicted – even the act of opening a window is stylishly presented.  The melodramatic elements of Charlotte Bronte’s narrative are all there, with contemporary music highlighting the modernity of the story.  The inclusion of standards like Mad About The Boy is both clever and apt, but no less effective is Benji Bower’s original score.

A real feat of theatre that breathes new life into an old story, the perfect marriage of form and content, Jane Eyre charms, amuses and touches in all the right places.  Even if the three-hour running time (extended by a delayed second act on this occasion!) numbs the bum a little bit, your head and your heart will think the time is flying by.

tim_delap_rochester_nadia_clifford_jane_eyre_nt_jane_eyre_tour_2017._photo_by_brinkhoffmogenburg_2

Theatregoer, I married him. Tim Delap as Rochester and Nadia Clifford as Jane. (Photo: Brinkhoff-Mogenburg)

 


Voices and Choices

MY COUNTRY

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 25th May, 2017

 

This touring show from the National Theatre is described as a work in progress – largely because, I suspect, Brexit has yet to happen and the debate still rages on – this absorbing piece of verbatim theatre, using the words of ordinary people from across the nation (as well as the drivel of politicians) to chart the country’s mood, before, during and after the referendum that split the UK in two.

In a clever framing device,  writer Carol Ann Duffy has Britannia herself (Penny Layden) welcome representative from the regions to a meeting, a chance to listen.  The regional reps are clearly distinguishable by their accents and attitudes. For example, Cymru (the marvellous Christian Patterson) enters voice first, as befits a Welshman; Laura Elphinstone’s North East rep is a hoot, deadpan and down-to-earth, plain-speaking and unpretentious.  Cavan Clarke’s Northern Ireland breaks out into a spot of Riverdance in one of the show’s livelier moments, while Stuart McQuarrie’s Caledonia proudly recites Robert Burns, supplying the whisky and the pragmatism.

Britannia oversees as, in the voices of their ‘constituents’, the reps air the views of the people, complete with hesitations, repetitions and deviations, for spot-on authenticity.  The opinions are often humorous, telling, and eye-opening.  It’s like an extended episode of Creature Comforts with flesh-and-blood actors standing in for the plasticene animals.

For what is essentially a piece in which seven actors sit behind desks, it comes across as anything but static.  Director Rufus Norris breaks up the recitations with action and humour – although most of the best lines come from the vox pops.  The reps may be stereotypes but the many and varied statements we hear mark us as a nation of individuals, albeit with some shared characteristics.  It’s almost as if the UK is a microcosm of the EU.  Fancy that!

Britannia chips in statements from MPs.  Her Boris Johnson is almost as vile as the real thing, as he tries to make bizarre and ludicrous analogies instead of facing issues head on.  Layden positively drips evil as Nigel Farage, spewing his ‘voice of reason’ bile.  Yuck.  Although it’s not quite a year since the vote, the show brings it all flooding back, including the frustration and disbelief I felt at the mismanagement of the entire campaign by both sides.

More than that, the show is a celebration of British identity in all its manifestations, reminding us we have always been a diverse agglomeration of regional differences.

The show ends with Britannia saying she still loves us all and what we need more than ever is leadership.

Let’s hope we get it, eh, Brit?

My Country

Making a song and dance about Brexit, the cast of My Country.


The Boss

ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 17th March, 2015

 

The National Theatre’s hit production reaches Wolverhampton for the final week of its tour and the energy levels show no signs of flagging. The emphasis is on laughs and plenty of them in this non-stop cavalcade of comedy in the old-fashioned way, right down to the comic asides that keep us in on the action.

Francis Henshall (Gavin Spokes) has been kicked out of his skiffle band but finds employment as a general factotum to not one but two unsavoury characters in the form of Roscoe Crabbe (really his own twin sister, impersonating her late brother!) and the boyfriend of Roscoe’s twin sister (and also his murderer) Stanley Stubbers. Add to the mix, arranged marriage, large sums of money and a shedload of slapstick, and the stage is set for a riotous couple of hours. It’s farce. It’s commedia dell’arte. It’s seaside postcards and Carry On.

It’s brilliant.

Spokes heads an ebullient cast. The comic timing is flawless. As hapless Henshall, Spokes throws himself into the role, literally – he even beats himself up. But, despite the title, this is not a One Man show. Shaun Williamson is superb as long-suffering patriarch, Charlie ‘the Duck’ Clench, with Jasmyn Banks hilarious as his melodramatically thick daughter, Pauline. A perfectly ridiculous Edward Hancock struts and postures around as wannabe actor Alan Dangle and David Verrey is good value as his lawyer father, Harry Dangle. The two guvnors, Alicia Davies and Patrick Warner, are equally preposterous in their characterisations – this is not a show about nuance. Characters are caricatures at the service of the plot and it’s utterly refreshing to see something so old-school working so well.

Emma Barton’s Dolly brings to mind a Joe Orton creation – in fact, Richard Bean’s wonderful script mines the traditions of British humour from the past three or four centuries. I particularly enjoyed Derek Elroy’s cheery old lag Lloyd Boateng but geriatric waiter Alfie (Michael Dylan) almost steals the show. It is Gavin Spokes who drives the engine, adlibbing with audience members and clearly still enjoying himself after all this time on the road.

Scene changes are covered by skiffle band The Craze (not the Krays, as I thought when I first heard them) but the interludes become increasingly bizarre as the show goes on. We are treated to a xylophone solo and later, someone plays an array of rubber-headed horns. It all adds to the heightened atmosphere of a piece that revels in contrivance and artificiality.

You don’t need to know the play’s heritage (although it’s detailed in the programme) to be able to laugh your face off at this relentlessly funny production. An absolute delight from start to finish.

one man


Boy-Curious

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 18th February, 2015

 

The National Theatre’s smash hit adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel hits the road, giving us provincial folk the chance to see the show on our home ground rather than face that pesky trip down to that London.

It is pleasing to see the Grand packed to the rafters for a show that isn’t a musical or a pantomime, and later, when this affecting piece of contemporary drama has worked its magic, to see the audience on its feet, raising a clamour for a non-naturalistic staging. We can have sophisticated tastes too out here in the regions.

Whatever it is, Curious Incident is accessible theatre. Bunny Christie’s set is a black box divided by white grid lines, like graph paper. The walls are interactive – what main character Christopher draws on the floor, appears on them. Christopher’s thoughts are also projected up there – the show takes place in Christopher’s mind, sort of, and Christopher has Asberger’s Syndrome…

At the performance I’m attending, Chris Ashby plays the lead, and knocks everyone’s socks off. We believe he is fifteen, immature in many ways for that age but also intelligent, with flashes of genius. His tendency to take everything literally gives rise to amusing exchanges, especially with authority figures, as Christopher sets out to solve the murder of his neighbour’s dog.

Supported – literally in some sequences – by a strong ensemble, Ashby entrances, endears and surprises. We see how Christopher sees the world but also how he is isolated by A.S. unable even to accept basic physical contact. It breaks your heart.

Members of the ensemble come to the fore to depict a range of characters. Roberta Kerr makes an impression as lonely old neighbour Mrs Alexander, while Clare Perkins shows her versatility as the head teacher and the foul-mouthed Mrs Shears. Stuart Laing and Gina Isaac are Christopher’s separated, long-suffering parents – and through them we see how parents of similar children strive and struggle to manage, and how their human failings make their efforts all the more superhuman.

Director Marianne Elliott combines movement sequences, physical theatre and narration to tell the story, at first through readings from Christopher’s own account and then – a bit meta – through a dramatised version. At one point, Christopher breaks the frame to instruct his mother to be angrier with her lover. But it is the production’s artificiality that makes the story hit home.

We are absorbed into Christopher’s world and way of seeing to the extent that the solving of an A-Level Maths question seems a reasonable and enjoyable form of encore.

At the end, when Christopher has solved the murder and proved he has some level of independence, he asks if it means he can do anything. He repeats the question a couple of times but the lights fade before he gets an answer. And you think, what does happen to children like this when they grow too old for the support network that is in place, when the parents are no longer around? And it breaks your heart again.

curious_new_banner with title2


Hot Stuff

THE KITCHEN

National Theatre Live broadcast, Thursday 6th October, 2011

 

I was relieved to find no issues with the projection during this visit to Cineworld Birmingham for the latest broadcast from the National Theatre, allowing me to focus on the play.

 

And what a play it is!  This is kitchen sink drama writ large.  Arnold Wesker’s drama, first presented in 1959, is set in a busy restaurant kitchen, a kitchen staffed by men and women of many countries.  It is like a mini United Nations but with sharp objects.

 

The actors prepare and serve invisible food, their movements choreographed, sometimes suggesting mechanisation and dehumanisation, at others suggesting the artistry of their work.  Even a lowly cutlet can be lovingly and beautifully prepared.   Like clockwork, they all freeze every now and then so that the audience can focus on a bit of dialogue between a couple of characters – a very effective device for a stage that is for the most part crowded with people all doing business.   This stop/start technique coupled with the variations of choreographed cookery suggest that the play is more than a naturalistic snapshot of a Day In The Life – and this is where Drama wins out against so-called “reality TV” and always will.  You get the feeling that the play is about something other than what is going on at surface level.  The second act, with its contrasting pace and rhythms, allows the audience to interpret relationships and events in another way.

 

There is an uneasy peace between the workers of different nationalities.  Skirmishes break out on a daily basis and violence occurs, but this fizzles out again and is often takes the form of workplace banter.  Cypriots goosestep around, mocking the Nazis who only a few years previously caused so much kerfuffle.  Divisions form and are crossed.  A German gives a rose to a Jew.

 

Director Bijan Sheibani and Movement Coach Aline David keep the show visually and emotionally interesting.  It could have been a very static piece, with actors confined to their work stations, performing repetitive actions like some bizarre kind of hand jive.  Rather than a peon about the dehumanisation of repetitive, dead end work, this is a celebration of what can be achieved when people work in concert, the sacrifice of individuality for the success of the group.  Many of these individuals express their desire to leave or their wish for the place to be destroyed completely so they won’t have to work anywhere, but continue to work there they do.  The play touches on workplace as trap, and the unfulfilling nature of most people’s lives.  That is not to say this is an evening of drudgery – quite the opposite in fact.

 

Among this impressive cast of cooks, waitresses,  and bottle washers, I particularly liked  Marek Oravec as cutlet fryer, Hans, Sam Swann as kitchen porter Dimitri whose greatest dream is to own a shed in which he can build homemade radios, and Rory Keenan as newcomer fish cook, Kevin.   I could go on and list another couple of dozen.

 

Dominating the action is Tom Brooke as interestingly-faced German fish boiler, Peter – he is German, I mean, the nationality of the fish is never established.  His mood sets the tone for much of the action.  When he is frantic, everyone is frantic.  When he is playful, everyone must play.  The breakdown of his affair with married waitress Monique leads to his nervous breakdown.  He runs amok with a cleaver, chopping at a gas pipe that fuels one of the cookers, before dashing off stage after a troublesome agency waitress, before coming back having inflicted terrible wounds on himself.  “Why have you stopped my world?” roars the restaurant owner, a sort of Young Mr Grace figure without the attendant sexy nurses.

 

Peter, unable to articulate an answer, backs out of the kitchen he has brought to a standstill. Before he can give voice to what might be bubbling up in his throat, there is a blackout, ending the play.  We get no excuses from the German with blood on his hands.

 

 

 


All Shook Up

EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 5th October, 2011

 

With a running time not far off of three hours, a play about climate change seems a daunting prospect, and while I spent the duration of this piece with my bum increasingly numb, in every other respect, the time flew by.

 

Mike Bartlett’s new piece gives us human drama on an epic scale, focussing on three sisters and zapping back and forth in time across the generations and so the play has more to tell us than just “The end is nigh” – although there is plenty of doom-mongering and scary stuff to go around.  What propels the action and keeps it engaging are the relationships of these three women, with each other and with others.

 

Former Torchwood boss, Tracy-Ann Oberman is a Lib-Dem secretary for the environment, serving in a coalition government (this play is bang up-to-date!) driven in her work to curb airline expansion while her marriage to grey man, Colin, enters its own ice age.  She is a woman with a cause, adept at deflecting the machinations of less scrupulous men and yet not without vulnerability.  It is a splendid performance.

 

Also outstanding is Lucy Phelps as rebel-without-a-mother, Jasmine, the youngest sister, more than able to hold her own against Paul Shelley as the overbearing, morally bankrupt scientist, the father who abandoned her when she was still in eco-friendly nappies.

 

Only in the second act does the play begin to wobble a bit.  We are in the year 2525 (a date picked just so we can hear the song) or are we?  Are we in a sterile version of the afterlife?  Are we in the final dream of dying middle sister, Freya?  An animation (which, incidentally, reminded me of the stories of Frith in the film version of Watership Down) tells us that one girl, Solomon, will lead the world through the oncoming global crisis and we will forever live in harmony and at peace with the planet.  If this kind of floppy mysticism is humanity’s only saviour, I am glad I won’t be around to endure it.

Otherwise, this is a thoroughly engaging piece, both emotionally and intellectually.  Good use is made of a revolving stage and rotating set walls to keep the action flowing and the characters on the move.  Music adds energy – the cast lip-synch and do choreography along with Coldplay’s Vida La Viva, for example, and it reminded me of the groundbreaking work of dear old Dennis Potter.

 

The topical references give immediacy to the piece and also a fast-expiring sell-by date, but this is in support of the message.  Time is limited and running out.  It may already be too late.

 

A draining (not just the blood from my buttocks) and rewarding watch, Earthquakes In London is an important new work that entertains and touches while keeping to the acceptable side of propaganda.