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2016 in theatre – male performances

“Know your lines and don’t bump into furniture” – Spencer Tracy

Fortunately I have been lucky enough to see some stunning performances by male actors who did so much more than just learn and not bump! It was hard to pick a few, but the men below really blew me away this year.

Paapa Essiedu, ‘Hamlet’, Royal Shakespeare Company

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Paapa Essiedu (photo from RSC website)

I’m always really gratified when a production helps me to see a play that I think I know really well in a completely new light. The RSC’s 2016 ‘Hamlet’ has utterly changed the way I see the dynamics of the play, and teased out some threads that I had not appreciated in the original text. This production was set in Ghana, and featured the very young Paapa Essiedu as a charismatic, sarcastic, energetic, thoroughly modern ‘Hamlet’, who is thrown back into a world that he last inhabited as a child, and who struggles to blend the two worlds of Elsinore and Wittenberg. Essiedu was dynamite on stage, speaking those famous soliloquies with a new breath, a new sharp focus, and the death of this notably young and bubbling Hamlet was all the more distressing at the end. He was since gone on to play Edmund in the RSC’s ‘King Lear’, and I’ve no doubt that his name will be one on everyone’s lips in a few years.

Ben Batt, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Manchester Royal Exchange

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Ben Batt and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (photo from Royal Exchange flickr)

As a rather reluctant student of Tennessee Williams at school, I have made efforts in my adult life to see more of him, and while I am yet to revisit ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, I have seen two ‘Streetcars’, starting with the Young Vic’s thrilling revolving version a few years back. This time, I travelled up to beautiful Manchester mainly to see Maxine Peake (I want to be her when I grow up) as Blanche, but found myself thoroughly engaged by Ben Batt as Stanley. As we have come to expect, his Stanley was all muscle, a brooding physical presence given to sharp and violent outbursts, but most astonishingly, Batt excelled when revealing Stanley’s deep insecurities as a recent immigrant, and as a man trying to establish his position in the world.

George Mackay, ‘The Caretaker’, Old Vic

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Timothy Spall and George Mackay (photo from West End Theatre website)

Once again, I found myself booking to see one actor (Daniel Mays, who was quite superb, as ever), but came out speaking only of another – this time, George Mackay. I hadn’t seen any of George’s films or plays before, but have since remedied that with a sneaky school night trip to see ‘Captain Fantastic’, and more recently, finally seeing ‘Pride’ thanks to iplayer. Mackay played Mick, the fast-talking ball of intimidation who memorably scares Davies with a hoover, a role that seems far removed from Mackay’s more frequently exhibited sweetness and delicacy; here, Mackay was like a leather-clad blade, slicing his way through Davies’ bluff and bluster, and creating an air of menace that frequently cut through the dark humour of the piece. For me, his performance, and the production as a whole, quite banished the memories of struggling through the play for GCSE, and there is no higher praise than that.

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‘Limehouse’ and ‘Don Juan in Soho’ the joys of a double play day

“What is that unforgettable line?” – Samuel Beckett

A double play day is one of life’s joys. It’s hard to beat the thrill of zipping up to London for a matinee, then barely pausing for breath (or dinner) before taking in an evening performance, before navigating the notoriously unreliable train back home. This week I’m on holiday, and entirely lacking in motivation to crack on with work, I made the spontaneous decision to catch ‘Limehouse’ in its final week at the Donmar, and the raffish David Tennant as Don Juan.

First up, the Donmar. For me, the Donmar is having a superb run of plays (see also the Almeida), and I loved ‘One Night in Miami’, ‘Saint Joan’, and many others there over the past few months. There was certainly a more mature vibe to this Donmar audience, but the subject matter is clearly a nostalgic one!

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A man in a dressing gown sits at his kitchen table, surrounded by papers. It’s 4am but he doesn’t seem tired. The Donmar audience files in, and the man paces a little, reading from his papers, thinking hard.

This is Tom Goodman-Hill as David Owen, the ambitious and (here at least) ruthlessly determined Labour MP who plans to form a brand new political party, thereby breaking the grip of a two party system, and addressing the issues that Labour is consciously avoiding. The parallels to our modern political wranglings were not lost on the audience, and there were many chuckles as characters complained about a vicious female Tory PM, Europe, and an ineffectual Labour opposition. The political and personal discussions that make up the play are a condensed version of the machinations that led to the formation of the SDP in 1981 (and all over a delicious-smelling macaroni cheese, from the unknown Delia Smith).

It’s a gem of a cast. The superb Roger Allam is fantastic as Roy Jenkins, all fastidiousness and soft rs, with Debra Gillett a smart, sharp Shirley Williams. The delightful Paul Chahidi brings both a comic edge (this exercises to ease a bad back are side-splitting) and also profoundly moving, when he breaks down at the thought of the ill will that a split from Labour will cause.

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The play has had mixed reviews, and an average of three stars from the major papers. This is a shame, and (in my opinion) feels like a reaction to a calmly paced thinkpiece about politics, loyalty, and friendship. Not every play can be action packed, and the quality of the performances alone deserves a higher rating. I particularly enjoyed the role given to Debbie Owen (the marvellous Nathalie Armin), a skilful negotiator and peacemaker, who is given a lights-up monologue posing the irresistible ‘what if?’ question.

As we all filed out, I thought about the young people who stood with me at the back of the circle, and wondered if, in 30 years time, we would enter the Donmar, with our own white hair, to see a play about the Milibands’ familial wrangles, or Corbyn’s leadership contests.

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Next up, a chance to see the wonderfully charismatic David Tennant back on stage. Several years ago, he was the closest to perfect Hamlet that I’ve yet seen, and was a striking and moving Richard II back at the RSC some years later. I had heard that he is on particularly rakish form in ‘Don Juan in Soho’, so I grabbed a cheap ticket in the Royal Circle, and entered the beautiful Wyndham’s Theatre.

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It’s a rather unusual play, to say the least. The eponymous anti-hero swaggers and lusts his way through life, utterly without remorse, having ‘liaisons’ with women, men – he isn’t fussy! – and utterly neglecting his new wife. His chaffeur and keeper of the database, played by a super Adrian Scarborough, longs to be free from his master’s immoral actions, but finds himself clinging on to the glamour and adventure.

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Tennant plays the role just right – that kilowatt smile buys himself a place in beautiful women’s beds, and in the audience’s hearts, despite his unrepentant behaviour. Even when a statue (superbly realised) warms him of his imminent death, he only feigns repentance, and his end, shocking at that moment, is soon forgotten in a delightfully fizzy and upbeat dance routine at the end.

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Overall, ‘Don Juan’ is a good night out, and David Tennant is always worth seeing on stage. It’s light, bright, frothy and filthy fun!

‘Hamlet’, Almeida Theatre

I had the great pleasure of seeing this production as a birthday treat to myself (I know, I know), and in the company of my best friend. We knew all about the 4 hour length, and the intensity of what was to come, so we stoked up on a Bill’s brunch, and settled in. Emerging 4 hours later into the evening spring sunshine, we were both blinking back tears, and just looking at each other in shared sadness and amazement!

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A word, first, about Andrew Scott. Predictably, the press leaped on the news of his casting, calling it the ‘Moriarty Hamlet’ (thereby erasing Scott’s impressive stage CV, just as they did when they called David Tennant the ‘Doctor Who Hamlet’), and preparing to draw comparisons with Benedict Cumberbatch’s sell-out show at the Barbican. Scott, however, is a far superior Hamlet. With the benefit of an intimate theatre, rather than the Barbican’s cavernous spaces, Scott could half-whisper lines, allow his voice to crack on certain lines, and then pour his heart into shouts or soft utterances as he saw fit. His Hamlet is sweet, sure, and gracious, and surrounded by love, but his desperation at the loss of his father pushes all aside. Crucially, and something that I have often forgotten, is the closeness between the two families. Gertrude is clearly very fond of Polonius; Ophelia and Laertes swamp their father with hugs even as they gently tease his verbosity; Laertes and Hamlet are friends, making the later action all the more upsetting. Hamlet weeps into Ophelia’s shoulder, and while she clearly loves him, her comparative youth makes her seem somewhat out of her depth in the relationship. The scene where Hamlet appears to Ophelia in his ‘mad’ state is shown through the glass doors (more on those later), but here, Hamlet disturbs Ophelia in the bath, and moves from sitting smilingly on the rim of the tub to holding and pulling at her arm. Ophelia’s nakedness, and then shocked appearance in front of Polonius with her fair still damp, suggested a violent edge to that encounter that was all the more shocking.

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The staging allowed for illuminating touches about the state of Elsinore. Whereas Tennant’s ‘Hamlet’ made extensive use of CCTV cameras, and Kinnear’s production had guards on stage even during the soliloquies, this Elsinore seems less of a surveillance state, and more of an elegant palace, which nonetheless provides opportunities aplenty for overhearing. The sliding, clear double doors allows the audience to see private conversations and intimate dancing in the background, and characters spot each other through the glass before entering a scene. Those doors came into their own in the ending, where all the deceased characters mingled, talked, and danced, before inviting Laertes, Gertrude, and even Claudius into their midst. It was a moment that might have been sentimental, but was handled beautifully, and providing a gorgeous counterpoint to Hamlet’s earlier musings about the ‘undiscover’d country, from whose bourn /
No traveller returns’.

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Pleasingly, given Scott’s star billing, the rest of the cast was also of the highest order. Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia was all the more moving for avoiding the now traditional let’s-strip-off-and-cavort-about kind of madness. She was brought on in a wheelchair, mentally broken and distraught, crushed by Hamlet’s savage rejection and the loss of her beloved father. Juliet Stevenson was once again excellent, infusing Gertrude with a winning sensuality and kindness, and her resolve to meet her death in the final scene was very powerful. Luke Thompson continues to shine as one of our finest young actors: Laertes is a tricky part (mainly because you’re off stage for such a chunk of time), but the buzz cut and the tattoo proved inspiring touches for this young, vibrant, and passionate Laertes, whose distress at the death of his father and the decline of his sister reminded us of how much suffering this play spills out.

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The ending, though, dealt the real emotional punch. As ever, the final scene spirals into a hideous bloodshed: the suicidal Gertrude, realising what her new husband has done; Claudius, forced to drink his own poison; Laertes, deeply regretting his anger; and, of course, Hamlet himself. But here, rather than leaving a pile of inert corpses, each one rises, in turn, and moves towards those sliding doors, handing over their watches to the Ghost, who takes the watches, and then lets them pass. (For a particularly enlightening discussion of watches in the play, check out this page). Over goes Laertes’ brand-new shiny number from proud Polonius; over goes Gertrude’s elegant, queen-befitting device. In the performance I saw, Hamlet also reaches to his wrist – only to find that his beloved father’s watch is already in the hands of the Ghost. Ultimately, this meant that Hamlet did not pass through those doors to paradise, but remained on stage, cradled by Horatio, as footage of a huge state funeral and a sad-eyed Fortinbras plays out above their bodies. The final broadcast image, of a photograph of all the now-dead characters, smiling and laughing together, was a terrible reminder of tragedy’s ultimate horror: the division and extermination of family lines.

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Just a few quibbles:

  • In this production, Claudius confesses his crimes directly to Hamlet, who is armed with a pistol and filled with murderous intent. He clearly isn’t praying privately – it’s a face-to-face confession, to the man whose father has been murdered. I really didn’t understand why the director chose this. If you have any thoughts, please do let me know!
  • I missed a real sense of a close friendship between Hamlet and Horatio, a key part of the Tennant Hamlet, for example.

‘Saint Joan’, Donmar Warehouse

A rather belated post, this, as I saw this play back in February! In fact, I caught a matinee after a rather inspiring hour walking with friends in the Women’s March in central London – the move from a crowd of passionate people defending women’s rights, to a play about a young woman challenging the masculine status quo, was not lost on me.

Gemma Arterton was quite luminous as Joan. Dressed in period clothing (a plain ‘peasant’ dress, then chainmail later) she challenges the male characters with the directness and truthfulness of her gaze. She was well-matched by intelligent performances from the rest of the cast (Elliot Levey being a real highlight, passionately begging Joan to renounce her claims in order to live), and the modern updates, for me, worked rather smoothly.

Lately I have become very interested in T. E. Lawrence (more of that in another post, I think!), so I was intrigued to learn that Shaw had partly based his portrayal of Joan on Ned. The parallels are quite clear: Joan and Ned were both individuals, highly unusual souls, who were hailed as different during their lifetimes, and who both achieved, or tried to achieve, extraordinary feats.

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‘Art’, Old Vic

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I have to admit, when I booked ‘Art’ a few months back, I did so not on the strength of the play (about which I knew nothing), but rather on the merits of the Old Vic itself. Under Artistic Director Matthew Warchus, this theatre dazzled with a superb 2016 season, including a devastatingly good ‘The Caretaker’ and a momentous ‘King Lear’. It was, then, with a degree of excitement that I escaped from a distinctly chilly London afternoon and stepped into the warmth of the Old Vic.

The play revolves around the fraught friendship between three middle-aged men: the urbane, raffish Serge; Marc, Serge’s sardonic erstwhile mentor; and Yvan, a nervy middle-man who, in the words of Serge, is ‘incapable of defending himself’. Serge astonishes and horrifies Marc by spending 100,000 euros on a white canvas (or ‘a piece of white shit’, as Marc calls it), which is brought out at regular intervals for inspection by the characters, and by the audience. Poor Yvan, under pressure from his demanding fiancée and stuck in a mundane job, finds himself dragged into Serge and Marc’s opposing views on the canvas, which culminates in a vicious argument in which truths are revealed with tragic cruelty and the men’s friendship is changed, perhaps beyond repair.

“I thought I had written a tragedy” – Yasmina Reza, 1998

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All three actors shine in their clearly defined roles. Rufus Sewell is particularly fine as Serge, with superb comic timing and the ability to turn audience laughter to an agonising wince with a particularly barbed comment. His chiseled good looks (sorry, had to mention how ridiculously handsome he is at some point) can only increase his allure, and prove helpful in establishing why Marc might be drawn to the younger man. Paul Ritter is perhaps the least immediately sympathetic of the three (though the audience is probably likely to align with his brutal dismissal of the canvas), but Ritter captures the deeper emotional complexity of Marc as the tension rises, and the wounded pride of a man who depends on being needed by younger, more glamorous friends. Tim Key has to work a little harder with Yvan, but earns a richly-deserved round of applause for a spectacular rant about the ludicrous minutiae of wedding etiquette, during which he scarcely draws breath.

One of the main concerns that critics and reviewers seem to have expressed is how well this play would fare in 2017; after all, our society is a little more accepting of the more challenging (or downright silly) aspects of modern art, and more willing to attribute meaning to plain canvases. I would agree that the play doesn’t have that particular edge, in a society where Hirst and Emin no longer seem provocative. For me, though, the debate about how to respond to the white canvas became one about our compulsions to express our opinions forcefully, no matter whom might be hurt or mildly annoyed by our thoughts. In an age where the President-Elect can fire out tweets that reveal his thin-skinned fear of criticism, and where Twitter disputes over a mildly different point of view can rapidly flare up into rape threats, the way in which the friendship between the men unravels felt particularly apt. While the men’s articulate cruelty is entertaining and cutting in equal measure, Sarah Kent for The Arts Desk aptly notes that men are rarely “this open and perspicacious”, but the savage nature of their verbal attacks on each other reminded me strongly of ‘The Caretaker’ from 2016, another play about three men using words to pick apart each others’ dreams and carefully constructed egos.

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Photo from the Old Vic website

The only moments that grated were the fault of the play, rather than the production. I wasn’t a fan of the use of the spotlight to allow each character to reveal information that could have come to light more gradually and naturally through dialogue. These moments felt especially jarring when compared to the play’s climax, which flows with brutal naturalism from cruel barb to deadly silence; however, the final scene, in which each character speaks their private reaction to the ‘trial period’ of their friendship before sitting under a spot of bright colour, was more effective.

I would give this production four stars. I laughed a lot more than I expected to, and hugely enjoyed first the discussions about responding to art and later the spectacular unravelling of the men’s relationship.

‘Art’ runs at the Old Vic until 18th February. 

 

2016 in theatre – female performances

“As an actor you spend all your life trying to do something they put people in asylums for” – Jane Fonda

From Peake to Walter, Jackson to Piper, it’s been a year of stunning performances from female actors. I can’t imagine how the Olivier panel is going to make its choices come the spring. Here are a few performances that really stood out for me this year.

Maxine Peake, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Manchester Royal Exchange

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I first saw Maxine Peake on stage as ‘Hamlet’ back in 2014, and caught her at the Royal Court some months afterwards in the little gem ‘How to Hold Your Breath’, which I find myself thinking about more frequently as the refugee crisis has escalated into what will surely be deemed a humanitarian disaster. She is utterly magnetic, with real stage presence, so I didn’t surprise myself when I rushed to see her as Blanche.

Peake never disappoints, and in her version of Blanche, there was none of the calm, no nonsense spirit that she exudes in normal circumstances. Clearly an alcoholic, she simpered and floated across the stage, clinging to the trappings of her past life of comfort and luxury on a deliberately bare and depressing stage. I particularly enjoyed her interaction with lace-clad spirits who emerged at times of particular psychological pressure, and who, in a neat twist, became her nurses for the final scene. Fragile, beautiful, and utterly compelling, it’s time Peake was recognised for the powerful stage actor that she is.

Denise Gough, ‘People Places Things’, Wyndham’s Theatre

 

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There’s always a danger, isn’t there, of going to see a play based on the kind of rave reviews that Gough attracted at the National. There’s always that nagging fear that Gough might be sick that day, or somehow not quite as stunning as you have been led to imagine. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the visceral, pulsing, terrifying spectacle of Gough just smashing out of the park (as the kids would say) in a tour de force performance.

It was one of those theatre moments where you are so moved, so repulsed, so desperately sympathetic, that your whole throat and upper chest aches. I wanted to moan aloud when Gough’s character, Emma, goes home and tries to heal the many wounds that her addiction has opened in her family life, but finds her attempts to find resolution dashed by her exhausted parents. I was up in the cheap seats, which at Wyndham’s can feel like miles from the stage, but I was so engrossed that stepping out into the light at the end of the show felt like an affront rather than a welcome escape. Gough disappeared so entirely into Emma, invested her with such life and vigour and selfishness and empathy, that her Olivier felt undisputed. This website has  lots of fascinating resources about issues raised in the play.

Rachael Stirling, ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Shakespeare’s Globe

 

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I admit – I am a huge fan of Stirling. I first came across her in an episode of ‘Lewis’ a few years ago and found her to be an actress of remarkable emotional intensity, all while exuding a sense of moral certainty and integrity. The combination of her Hermione and John Light’s Leontes was too good to miss.

I found myself sitting in the pit in the Blackfriars theatre, on a seat that was right next to the stage, so I had to tuck myself in to allow actors full access to the steps onto the stage. This felt like such a privileged position: the gorgeous cloaks and dresses of the actors swept over my left arm and leg, and I could observe each facial movement, each physical reaction, in fine detail.

Stirling’s Hermione was as close to perfect as I can imagine. Stately, queenlike, and noble to her core, Stirling’s low and melodious voice beautifully captured Hermione’s joy, and later her anger and sorrow, in rich and believable detail. Her appearance for her ‘trial’, in a gown stained from recently giving birth, was a harrowing scene, and her blend of fear and righteous anger was perfectly judged. The statue scene, always deeply moving in its redemptive power, relied on her conveying power and mercy while saying very little, and once again she matched John Light’s intensity. A glorious performance.

Billie Piper, ‘Yerma’, Young Vic 

 

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When I was a teenager, Billie Piper was touring the UK with a play (the name of which I have now forgotten) which happened to co-star Laurence Fox, whom she later married. I was so excited to see her, but on the day, I was struck down with a vile bug, and ended up missing it. So, when I walked into the remarkably cool environment of the Young Vic to see ‘Yerma’, I felt a ridiculous sense of triumph against the many viruses and bugs lurking in the London air that had failed to prevent me from seeing Piper perform live.

Thank goodness I made it. ‘Yerma’ is a play that got under my skin years ago when I read it (in the original Spanish, cough cough), and this version felt more like a nod to Lorca than an updating of the text, but Piper’s performance was truly outstanding. At first somewhat grating (and deliberately so) with her picture-perfect home, beautiful clothes, and great career, the way in which she became more vulnerable and desperate until that final, shocking conclusion was remarkable. The fish-tank staging made the audience uncomfortable voyeurs, and I was struck by how the play drove home how biology has an unquantifiable hold on our sense of self. I would watch her in anything now, and I can’t wait for her return to the stage soon.

 

 

New Year’s Resolutions

Exit, pursued by a bear (The Winter’s Tale)

You know how it is, dear reader. December gradually ebbs away in that strange post-Christmas lull when no one has the faintest idea what day it is, what the weather is meant to be doing, and no clear idea on how our stomachs are going to recover from the onslaught of rich delights that the Christmas period has put in temptation’s way. January looms on the horizon, replete with thoughts of fresh beginnings, the ‘new you’, and, of course, the guilt that goes alongside a nagging sense that achieving this glowing, slender, energetic new self will not be as easy as the magazines make out.

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Some years ago, I decided to adopt a different type of New Year’s Resolution. Instead of creating resolutions based on restrictions, I would focus on promises to myself that would, in some way, enhance and enrich my life, rather than starving me. One such resolution was to see more theatre that wasn’t written by my beloved Shakespeare, and this is one I have continued, often booking tickets based on zero knowledge of the playwright or actors, and frequently finding some real gems along the way.

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Theatre, as you might have guessed, has long been a passion of mine. As a child, my parents would take me to the RSC every Christmas to see a show; at university I didn’t really see as much student theatre as I should have done; it wasn’t until I started working that I realised the beauty, and the power, of theatre. Last year, I saw 40 plays – not bad for someone with a busy full-time job! – and I decided to record my thoughts about the plays I see on a blog. I don’t always see plays at the start of their run, but hopefully a few people might find these reviews amusing or helpful in some way.

I will start soon by looking back at 2016 in theatre, but for now, Happy New Year!