Thursday, 12 July 2012

Monthly Round-Up: June 2012

Whups. Where I knew in advance that May was going to be busy, June somehow snuck up on me, with an equally daunting 18 plays (20 if you count repeat trips). And, as it was also a manic month at work, I have somehow failed to make any notes to jog the memory. But let's see what I can remember.

1 - Much Ado About Nothing in French - Shakespeare's Globe (59/65/68) ***
2 - Detroit - National Theatre (60/66/69) ***
2 - Cymbeline - RADA (61/67/70) ****
3 - Hamlet in Lithuanian - Shakespeare's Globe (62/68/71) **
7 - Henry V in English - Shakespeare's Globe (63/69/72) ****
8 - Something Very Far Away - Unicorn Theatre (64/70/73) *****
8 - The Physicists - Donmar Warehouse (65/71/74) ****
9 - Mercury Fur - Trafalgar Studios (65/71/75) *****
10 - Antigone - National Theatre (66/72/76) ****
12 - Chariots of Fire - Hampstead Theatre (67/73/77) ****
14 - Collaborators - National Theatre (68/74/78) ****
15 - Comedy of Errors - RSC at the Roundhouse (69/75/79) ***
16 - Twelfth Night - RSC at the Roundhouse (70/76/80) ***
16 - The Tempest - RSC at the Roundhouse (71/77/81) ****
18 - Twelfth Night - RSC at the Roundhouse (71/77/82) ***
19 - Mercury Fur - Trafalgar Studios (71/77/83) *****
21 - Tender Napalm - Southwark Playhouse (72/78/84) *****
25 - The Witness - Royal Court (73/79/85) ****
27 - Long Day's Journey Into Night - Apollo Theatre (74/80/86) ****
27 - Summer and Smoke - Southwark Playhouse (75/81/87) ***

I started off the month with an ending, rounding off the fantastic Globe to Globe festival with three final productions. First up was Much Ado About Nothing by the Compagnie Hypermobile in French. A fun, bright, frolicking romp through the play; crammed full of dance, mime, song and comedy.  Making up for what it lacked in subtlety (it had a pantomime-esque aesthetic) with simple unbridled joy.  It was hard not to root for Alex Poisson's Beatrice and Bruno Blairet's Benedict, both inhabiting an interesting mix of gender bending, wearing brittle masks of their opposites to hide their own insecurities. Beatrice, mannish and aloof; against Benedict, extravagant and flirtatious - the unravelling of their disguises, beautifully observed and endearing. The show was stolen, rather unexpectedly, however, by Francois de Brauer's hilarious, demonstrative and drunken Borachio.

Sadly the last of my foreign language Shakespeare's, Hamlet in Lithuanian, was less successful and utterly baffling. The tone was rather set when somebody wandering past the groundling queue was overheard asking:- "Hamlet, that's the one with the frog, right?" The rest of the afternoon proved equally baffling. I spent most of the play with no idea what was going on (something of an achievement as this was my twelfth Hamlet), with much of the symbolism and a lot of the storytelling going completely over my head (for some reasons there were coconuts). Which doesn't mean there weren't some great theatrical coups, particularly with the use of ice - Hamlet having to wrest his dagger from a block of ice was a prime example, whilst Claudius smashing apart the Ice Chandelier of Death was certainly memorable. But overall nothing quite clicked into place for me and it needed to find clarity withing the ideas.

Though Hamlet was my last foreign language, the festival ended officially, and a little uncomfortably, with the English Henry V. 'Uncomfortably' as its joint position in both the festival and the main season robbed the festival of the sense of glorious climax it so rightly deserved, I couldn't shake the feeling that it needed a more definite end, rather than dragging on in some sense throughout the summer. Though that certainly isn't a criticism of the production itself, which I thought was fantastic.  Interestingly this proved to be one of those occasions where I find my opinion something at odds with a lot of my friends. On overall experience, rather than details - we all seem to agree that Jamie Parker is the strongest part of the production, with many of the scenes where he's absent unfortunately meandering, but I was lucky enough to come out buzzing despite these weaknesses. Possibly this was because of the audience, which at the Globe varies more than most theatres. There was something electric in the air the night I attended, a sense of an audience utterly gripped, and the moment where, as one, we shouted 'For Harry, England and St. George' still raises goose bumps on my skin. Though perhaps it's also just that this stricter focus upon the continuing journey from Hal to Harry worked for me; I was invested in him still learning, teetering on the edge of darkness, failure, and horror; just pulling back. Parker is masterful in the role, and had me in tears multiple times. It's a performance worthy of four stars alone. But I also did enjoy a lot of the other touches in the production - the use of smoke and fire, the speed of the quick changes, the bewildering energy of the battle scenes and the joy of seeing a proper jig upon the stage again. Plus, special praise must go to the excellent Beruce Khan, who stepped in seamlessly and superbly to cover the role of Gower, in deadpan glory, at short notice.

As well the Globe, I also got my monthly fix of Shakespeare, from my most regular dealer, the RSC, with their unofficially titled Shipwreck Trilogy at the Roundhouse (kudos to them, if you're going to accept money from the ecological devil in corporate form, getting them to sponsor a set of plays that will directly remind people of man-made ecological disasters is certainly the way to do it). Kicking off with The Comedy of Errors. The production started strongly, with the interesting idea of drawing out the brutality inherent in the plays setting but unfortunately this lost focus after the initial opening scenes and was all but forgotten for the much of the play. Plus the difficulty in balancing the darkness against the comedy high jinks, in the end made this an unsatisfying performance for me. Though I did like the way they differentiated the sets of twins and the light touches they made towards the very different relationships between the two sets of masters and servants (seriously, productions should make more of this element).

Though I'm still waiting for a production that will really make Twelfth Night sing for me, this was one of the better efforts I've seen (more than a worthy first live production for my flatmate who loves the play, prompting a re-visit a few days after the first). The setting, a dilapidated hotel, worked fantastically; moments of people bursting from the water were theatrically magical; and a bleak, sorrowful soundtrack added wonderfully to the atmosphere, underscoring the comedy. There were also some excellent performances with Bruce Mackinnon as a bewildered Andrew Aguecheek and Kirsty Bushell as a perpetually embarrassed Olivia standing out for me. The star of the show, however, was the superb Jonathan Slinger (who had also provided a memorable turn as Dr Pinch in Comedy of Errors), with a beautifully nuanced performance as Malvolio, though somewhat undermined by the yellow stockings scene. Whilst the shock comedy of the way the scene was played here was undeniable (just watching the front row's reactions was hilarious), I really wish that we could move away from what feels like an endless string of productions that have left Malvolio in his underwear, it never feels right for the character to me, and I think ignores the fact that at heart his humiliation is class based. He dares to dream himself as good as his betters and I thing that's something that still resonates today. Sorry, didn't mean to rant... all in all a strong attempt at a difficult play.

It's always a good idea to end on a high and, for me, The Tempest did just that. A superb production, bleak and unforgiving, resonating throughout with a powerful central performance by Slinger. He is undoubtedly one of our finest actors today, inhabiting every moment and tortured nuance of the character: a twisted, vengeful outsider, initially disconnected from his own humanity. I was particularly fascinated by his relationship with Sandy Grierson's unworldly, half formed Ariel - the doubling of the characters creating a sense of them bleeding into each other, of Ariel becoming more human as Prospero becomes less so; underlined by a genuine affection that made a final moment, after their roles had reversed again, when Ariel examined Prospero's new garments, buttoning his new jacket and physically touching him for the first time, deeply moving. As well as the more intimate doubling of Ariel and Prospero, all the occupants of the isle, both physical and spiritual, became echoes of Propero - in matching battered suits - Prospero's exile shared by all. Giving the island the feeling of a prison.  The unearthliness of the costumes, set and performances were also highlighted by odd moments, almost unnoticeable, unsettling flickers in the lighting, the concept of human puppetry and the revealing mirrored box - which alongside Slinger's performance, brought Derren Brown to mind. The connection worked particularly well for me as a means of visualising the subtlety of the magic, but did also sit uneasily with the almost operatic presentation of the wedding scene and I'm not sure that, here, the production has quite gotten the balance right. That said, I was completely enraptured by Ariel's equally dramatic harpy (and utterly in love with the sight of him hand sewing his wings during the interval). There was also strong support from Bushell, Mackinnon and his comedy partner in crime, Felix Hayes, who have all proved favourites for me in this ensemble. And although this wasn't a perfect production, it was a completely thrilling one.

My final Shakespeare of the month represented a couple of firsts for me - my first ever Cymbeline and my first trip to a RADA graduate production. Both were a success. Although it felt like the play could do with a little cutting (around two and a half hours long, straight through), I loved the tribal, sixties/hippie feel the production captured - the feel of a gang putting on a show. The set and staging were excellent - flexible, grubby and inventive, with a touch of magic used to create Roman courts, beds, caves and tents. The production also used both movement and a musical sound scape (primarily of drums and vocals) to create setting and atmosphere. I particularly loved the staging of Posthumous' departure by ship, which combined all three techniques masterfully. There were, as expected, also lots of strong performances and plenty of young actors to watch for in the future. My particular favourites were Graeme McKnight's colourful Cloten, Adam Nagaitis' intense Iachimo, and Obi Iwumene's strong, noble Belarius.

As well as my typical excess of Shakespeare in June, I also carried on with the unexpected and entirely mind blowing RidleyFest 2012 with two more return trips to Mercury Fur and a first visit to Tender Napalm (seriously somebody needs to put on a Ridley play soon, I'm having withdrawal symptoms). The fact I saw this production of Mercury Fur four times between its two runs at the Old Red Lion and Trafalgar Studios probably speaks for itself and in all honesty it might have been more times if I'd been able to stand seeing it emotionally more than once in a week. It never got easier to watch - that's one of the things that made me go back again and again. It never stopped feeling horrible, never stopped making my heart swell, never stopped making me jump in my seat. Every emotion provoked feeling just as sharp and real and powerful as the first time. And even now, after it has closed, I still don't feel quite ready to say goodbye to the characters or the world, horrific as it is. It's easily my favourite production of the year so far and I can't wait to see what Greenhouse Theatre work on next.

Tender Napalm was an equally visceral experience for me, and though it hasn't quite displaced Mercury Fur as my favourite Ridley, it was a close run thing and if anything it left me even more shaken than the former work. I tried reading some extracts from the script on the tube journey home and was unable to without crying and it has felt ever since like images and phrases from the script have been haunting me. Particularly the line: "The day it happened my cry of grief was so powerful it created a black hole in the universe - You see it?" All of which is a testament to Ridley's skill and ability to capture intense, raw emotions. Here he explores the almost unimaginable grief of losing a child; of the isolation that creates; of the idea that sometimes fighting the ones you love, hurting them, is your only defence against rage and despair; and of the healing powers of storytelling. It's hard to do the script justice, quoting it out of context robs it of power, as it is the clever, careful interweaving of stories, layers and of stray remarks that builds the story here. It's a credit to both Lara Rossi and Tom Byam Shaw that in the spare setting they are able to create such vivid performances, conjuring entire worlds for their audience, with intensely energetic performances grounded in the inner life of their characters. An incredible production on every level.

My third five star production of the month (lucky me) was the short but perfectly formed and equally emotional Something Very Far Away at the Unicorn Theatre. The success of this for me was a combination of the beautiful, bittersweet storytelling that went straight to my heart, and the thrill of getting to watch the craft involved in creating it. This wasn't a typical theatre production - instead the audience were invited to watch the story on a projected screen at the same time as watching it being filmed using a vast array of skills. The inventiveness was astounding - puppetry, projections, shadow animation, zoom ins, rain (from a bucket raised in front of the camera), spinning horses - the small cast of four operators seamlessly working together to create what can only be described as magic. I have never seen a theatre full of children so enraptured and silently engrossed. One of the other things I deeply loved about this production was that, in the same way Pixar has gradually been doing, this chipped away at the concept that children can only relate to stories about people like them and that the only stories they can find meaningful are those about childhood and growing up. Here instead the hero was a deeply intelligent man, damaged by grief and loss, who is driven to the very edges of the universe by love. It was a tale of beauty and sorrow and waste and inspiration, emotionally challenging, intellectually complex and very human, and exactly the sort of story it's amazing to see young people responding to. All beautifully underscored by a (mostly) live guitar soundtrack, resonating with lilting bass notes. Absolutely perfect. 

I dashed straight from the Unicorn to the Donmar, to catch their production of Dürrenmatt's The Physicists. The second of Josie Rourke's directorial offerings since she's taken over the reins of the theatre and, like The Recruiting Officer before, I thought this was superb. A lucid, engrossing production, masterfully handling the twists and turns of the complex plot. What really made this production sing, however, is that at the centre of the all-round strong cast, is an exemplary performance by John Heffernan. To my mind easily one of our most exceptional young actors today, he brings a naturalness and humanity to Möbius that grounds the rapid changes in characterisation perfectly, switching from the intensity of the 'mad' scenes to the wry humour of those that follow without jolting our belief in the character, and providing an emotional link that brings pathos to the second half of the play. It is difficult to imagine his performance being bettered. In fact I found myself  with only one reservation regarding the production, which was that Sophie Thompson's rather one note performance, failed to give space for the plays darkness to really thrive. I felt that a more subtle approach would have kept the audience more unsettled and uncertain about what of the patients' world and actions were real or controlled.

That sense of unbalance was, in contrast, expertly captured by Collaborators at the National Theatre. A twisting story, challenging perceptions throughout, it managed to take me by surprise more than once (not just during Simon Russell Beale's dramatic entrance). At its heart this is a story of collusion, of what people can make us do - to ourselves and to others - given that this is at the base of many of my deepest fears (ever since I read about concentration camps and people just following orders), I don't think it's surprising I found it gripping. John Hodge handles the ideas masterfully and like the best plays, this puts you into a position where you have to ask what you would do in the situation. Both Alex Jennings and Russell Beale put in entrancing central performances and I was also impressed by both Jacqueline Defferary and Pierce Reid. A visually striking, structurally unusual, and interesting piece, which I'm glad I finally got to see after forgetting I had a ticket last year.

Antigone was another impressive offering at the Olivier theatre. I'm a massive fan of Greek tragedy, the things that seem to bother others in their structures, work for me and though Antigone isn't one of my favourites (seriously people need to get on the Euripides band wagon soon), this was a powerful production. I thought the non-specific modern setting worked well, it had a starkness that suited the story, and I thought the transformation of the chorus into 'journalist types' was a clever, effective idea. The movement and choreography throughout added to the sense of inevitability and things being beyond control and I think they managed the more mythical elements well, without shattering the modern illusion. Both Christopher Eccleston and Jodie Whittaker put in intense performances as the leads, though it  was Jamie Ballard's Tiresias that really blew me away, capturing a sense of horror in his prophecies that I've rarely felt as viscerally before. Not the strongest Greek production I've seen, but impressive in its own right.

Detroit in the Cottlesloe was, unfortunately, rather less successful for me - though it is a little hard to pinpoint why exactly. There was certainly interesting, engaging writing, with enough twists and turns to satisfy; strong female characters; good performances from all the actors; and a fantastic set transformation for the final scene - but whilst these individual elements were strong, my overall impression as I left was dissatisfaction. Mostly, I fear, the problem was that it didn't seem to know what it wanted to say and was, by the end, meandering and directionless.

In some ways The Witness at the Royal Court had almost the opposite problem, almost too certain of the message it was leaving us with, rather than exploring the shades of grey inherent in its central issue - whether war photography has value and power, or whether it exists purely as macabre entertainment. Thankfully though, whilst I might have wanted a less definite ending,  it certainly didn't ruin my enjoyment of the piece. Vivienne Franzmann has produced another impressive piece following her debut, Mogadishu, here again she shows a flair for capturing the intense, difficult and loving relationships between families and the feeling throughout of the mercurial changes filtering through each of the characters is masterful. She is aided by the strong cast, with Pippa Bennett-Warner again emerging as a favourite. The set was also stunning, thrusting the audience completely inside the family home (literal flies on the wall). And whilst I wish Franzmann had found a way to end with the complexity of the issue intact, the marginally black and white ending was softened for me by the very fact that the play itself exists as part of the same debate. Art or exploitation?

Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams - unfair as it may be I always seem to end up comparing the two and given my double bill of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and Williams' Summer and Smoke (and the fact that it was a discussion that came up amongst friends), it's perhaps unsurprising that it's been dominating my thoughts whilst I've been writing the round-up. I'm firmly a Williams girl (if I had to choose, which thankfully I don't), I love the joy he twists out of language and the central roles female characters play, and whilst of the two productions here O'Neill comes out the better, they did little to change my overall opinion. Even in Long Day's Journey Into Night, understandably a classic, an exquisite performance by Laurie Metcalf, doesn't quite manage to shake the fact that the memorable Mary Tyrone is still very much seen throughout the play by the impact she has on the male character's stories, instead of her own. That, however, is a small niggle in a superb production. The faded glory of the set and costumes, whilst perhaps somewhat unoriginal, combined with elegant lighting by Mark Henderson, created an aching beauty, wringing out the quiet, deep tragedies of the story. Best of all, the subtlety of the production allowed the strong performances to shine - Metcalf is unforgettable, David Suchet mesmerising and, favourite, Kyle Soller is startlingly good (again) as Edmund.

Although Summer and Smoke was unarguably less successful and much smaller scale, it was still a charming production. Originally a piece worked up whilst the young cast and director were all studying at LAMDA, it does bare the slight discomfort of all student based productions - primarily the lack of anybody old enough to play the parental figures convincingly. However,  they  more than make up for that through the clever doubling (and tripling) of characters, a refreshing inventiveness and joyous theatricality. The attention to detail that the cast  put into capturing the sounds of the production was particularly noteworthy and I loved how they created a firework display in the central scenes, from lit trailing matches representing roman candles to whistles and the crackle of bubble-wrap perfectly capturing the explosions of rockets. There were several strong performances, with the women of the cast, as expected for a Williams play, having the best of the fun - Kate Lamb particularly, as the nervy Alma, shining. I look forward to seeing them all again.

The final show of this round-up was, the also excellent, Chariots of Fire. I'm glad I got to see this before it left the Hampstead, because whilst the transformation in the Gielgud looks impressive, I loved how immersive the experience was at the smaller theatre. It was both thrilling to be so close to the action and to see the energy pounding through the cast up close. Whilst the staging was easily my favourite part of the production, with the hurdle rehearsal scene a particular favourite. I also thought the story telling handled the two storylines fantastically, capturing an impressive balance between the two characters, though I might have wished for a deeper sense of conclusion to the Abraham's story. The cast were great, with James McArdle and Jack Lowden superb in the leading roles. I also really loved the use of music throughout, and whilst Vangelis may feel a bit overwrought now, the Gilbert and Sullivan more than made up for it. Plus the final rousing Jerusalem might even have stirred the final embers of dying patriotism in my heart, at least for a little while.

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