‘night Mother – Hampstead Theatre

Night Mother - Hampstead Theatre

Hampstead Theatres continues its trip down memory lane with Marsha Norman’s two-hander ‘night Mother which had its UK premiere at the venue in 1985, and it’s fascinating over 35 years later to see a play that has the courage of its convictions, a drama that stays true to its characters with no soapy or simplistic conclusion that would betray its purpose. Instead, it holds the line to offer a female-focused narrative about mental health and suicide that feels incredibly modern, slowly unfolding its depth and, eventually, a great poignancy. Roxana Silbert’s production finds a calm authority in its central character, a women who knows without fuss or melodrama, that this will be her last night alive.

Running at around 80-minutes and playing in real time, ‘night Mother is one continual Act with no scene breaks or pauses just a rolling conversation between a mother and daughter focused on the past and the future, taking place in a single room, a combined living room and kitchen in a detached house in rural America. It’s a physical space in which the characters can busy themselves with domestic chores that Norman uses as surface distractions for Thelma and Jessie, allowing them to talk more openly while giving their hands and brains some practical tasks to perform.

But these activities are also Norman’s milestones or dramatic markers that signify directional change in the discussion as well as points of no return for Jessie who spends this time striking these items from her to do list, each one moving her closer to the end she craves. The action, therefore, becomes a cumulative process of ending, a rounding off or settling of accounts in which Jessie uses refilling the sweet jars, replacing the sofa cover or cleaning the fridge as a signals that she has provided a tidy legacy for her mother in the aftermath of Jessie’s death, each task a stepping stone to what is to Jessie an inevitable and irrecoverable conclusion.

That Norman stages her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama in this very domestic environment is extremely pointed, placing within it two generations of women with very different outlooks and opportunities. Thelma has been a housewife all her adult life, content to take things as they come and accept the world as it exists, finding comfort and enjoyment in her family, gossip about the neighbours, crochet and television, all the things the made up the lives of her generation in 1985. Yet, offered exactly the same things – a husband and son – Jessie is repelled by the same circumstances, and while never overtly stated, Norman hints that female liberation of which Jessie would have been one of the first to benefit from birth has done more to confine her than her mother’s more traditional experience in the past 40 years.

Something about Jessie’s life just doesn’t fit, and the things her mother can live for are not enough to sustain the daughter. The promise of love and children has disappointed her, and yet Norman never offers any suggestion that Jessie had the chance of independence in her youth through career, friends or agency, implying these avenues were always closed to her. What is left out of Jessie’s story is almost as important as the details Norman shares with the audience, helping to create a context in which this woman sees only one possible outcome. That this last night is filled with traditional domestic chores is deliberate, a place where both women ended-up but with acres of space between their opposing responses to its strictures.

And Norman proffers two contrasting forms of domestic act, the routine and everyday requirements of sustenance and cleanliness, and the maternal acts of care that are couched in memories of childhood treats. That both Thelma and Jessie perform these acts gives depth and shape to the play, while Norman adds intrigue by changing the purpose of character actions as they are received. In one rare moment in the play, Thelma takes charge, preparing a pan of hot chocolate at Jessie’s request as a final nod to the mother-daughter relationship that once existed between them, almost an echo from the past. Except in the present it has soured, and the moment of proximity they crave in carrying-out this forgotten ritual results in failure because tastes and personalities have shifted. What was Thelma’s maternal act of kindness to her daughter is undercut by their mutual reaction to it which is not at all what they remember and Norman uses this to add layers to their complex relationship.

Likewise, for much of the play, it is Jessie who adopts the mother-provider role, she is replenishing, cleaning and giving clear instruction to Thelma on where things are kept, what she should do next and how the household should be organised which creates a dependency in her mother that is both emotional and physical, relying on Jessie to keep the home in domestic order. But is Jessie acting out of love, obligation or some other motive? Silberg’s production for the Hampstead Theatre suggests the latter options, that there is no real affection or understanding between the women, and it may never have existed, so although Jessie wants to think she’s leaving her mother well provided for, her ministrations are partially to allay her own conscience and reduce any criticism from her brother and sister-in-law, but instead the systematic performance of these tasks are carried out primarily to focus her own determination, to create a roadmap for this final 80-minutes that will occupy her until the time is right.

That this is a suicide story is clear from the beginning and Norman never deviates from an ending her protagonist is open about, announcing it in the first minutes of the play and one she is quietly determined to reach. Despite the conversation that unfolds, the revelations and home truths that emerge, even a spot of pleading, ‘night Mother is admirably never swayed from that outcome. We see this all too rarely in modern drama and instead women are often dissuaded from their rational choices at the eleventh hour by a romantic sensibility, a prudish morality or the need for an unrealistic happy ending (often resulting in a woman giving up control of her choices or her body), so Norman’s treatment of Jessie as a woman who has made a clear-headed decision about her life and her body, weighed-up all the options available to her and quite coolly puts her plan into action, is respectful, and a model for how female characters can be constructed.

The introduction of absent male characters, Thelma’s husband as well as Jessie’s husband and son, creates some interesting parallels between the two women, exploring the mutual failure of their marriages and its impact on the women’s ability to shape and direct their lives. In fact, it reinforces the approach that Norman has taken to her female characters, Thelma largely at ease with the loveless marriage she endured, although in this Hampstead production there are hints of resentment when she speaks of him, while the more emotionally open Jessie has deep feeling for all three men, enjoying and suffering from fuller relationships that have societally left her in the same single state as her mother but have ultimately brought her very little joy or peace of mind.

The crucial connection is with Jessie’s father and, like Alice Birch’s fascinating Anatomy of a Suicide, there is a subtle thread here about inherited suicide, a strand that gets to the heart of the troubled relationship between Jessie and Thelma which stretches back to childhood when her father was the preferred parent despite his faults. Norman is also subtle in presenting the circumstances of his death, there are hints he may have taken his own life following a series of seizures that have similarly plagued his daughter, and what connection there might be between the outcome for these characters, Norman leaves the audience to suppose. At the very least, it adds greater context to Thelma’s behaviour as the past repeats itself and she is, once again, powerless to prevent it.

Jessie is an interesting character to pitch, and Rebecca Night opts for clarity of thought and a decisiveness that apply as much to the management of household tasks as to the arrangements for her final evening. The text suggests Jessie is in one of her brighter phases which Night builds on in the early part of this duologue to give momentum and authority to the character, which also offers the audience and Thelma some hope that Jessie will change her mind. As the revelations unfold and we come to learn more about Jessie’s longer-term depression and struggles, Night creates space for emotional connections to family, memory and the hopes she once had some of which become very affecting. But that certainty of purpose never wavers even as the conversation loops and flounders, and it sits beneath every aspect of Night’s presentation of Jessie and it is what makes her such a rare and interesting creation.

It’s great to see Stockard Channing back on the London stage following Apologia in 2017, and although ‘night Mother is a similar American family story, Thelma is a far more ambiguous character to play. Channing places her somewhere between a wishful co-dependence with her daughter and a far more independent personality than Thelma is prepared to admit to herself. There is neediness and fear in the mix with a little bitterness about the repeated abandonment that sometimes plays out as a sulky destructiveness, but she knows the connection with Jessie is damaged beyond repair so Channing has Thelma almost stand back and let events play out with occasional half-hearted appeals to delay. In other hands, Thelma could be more fragile, a Tennessee Williams mother-figure lost in her own world and while Channing momentarily lingers here, like Jessie, there is also an underlying strength, that she has found the secret to coping with her life, leaving a lasting knowledge that she will be just fine tomorrow.

Staged by Ti Green, this production retains its original 1980s setting – a feature of all of the Hampstead reopening productions – but is never overt in its presentation of the decade. The design choices are more timeless, suggesting a much lived-in home with accents from the 50s onwards that imply an accumulated family life over many decades while aspects of it start to look a little rundown. But it is also a single storey country place, so Green uses wood for the flooring and surfaces to suggest what may once have been a small, timber farm or ranch house with a sense of limited rooms beyond and a tight-knit, claustrophobic community outside.

With a few performances ahead of press night later this week, the building chemistry between the actors can only grow which will help with establishment in the early scenes and those marked directional shifts in discussion and theme. But in Silbert’s staging, the ending is already powerful, making Norman’s 40-year old Pulitzer-winning play feel bold and purposeful.

‘night Mother is at the Hampstead Theatre until 4 December with tickets from £18. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Dune: Coming of Age in the Period-Future

Dune by Denis Villeneuve

Released just weeks apart, two major movies have been tasked with the job of luring people back to the cinema after the pandemic delayed their original release dates. No Time to Die has done brisk business from its first weekend with fans arriving for midnight and early morning screenings that close the book on the Daniel Craig era in some style. Now, Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated adaptation of Dune is set to continue the cinema-going momentum with a film that speaks equally to the fan base who hold Frank Herbert’s original novel close to their hearts, and the casual viewer attracted by a stellar cast coming to the material for the first time.

On the surface, they may seem like entirely different propositions but Bond and Dune have a great deal in common; the growing appreciation for cinematography and the beautiful possibilities of light have been characteristic of the 007 movies since Sam Mendes took our breath away in Skyfall, while the insistence on real stunts and locations has been a calling card of the franchise over more than 60 years while other blockbusters have leaned in to CGI and backlot filming approaches. A child of the 1970s and 1980s, Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune adopts much the same approach, and while some CGI is required – it is a space film after all – the director situates his narrative style in the reality of locations and stunt-work that make this a very satisfying cinema experience.

At a small UK preview, screening at the BFI Southbank, Villeneuve described his setting as the “period-future,” a place that is recognisable in its visual aesthetic, with technologies in particular as well as costume design that reference medieval, Middle Ages and incongruously (but rather brilliantly) the 1980s, while simultaneously presenting a futuristic vision of inhospitable alien planets, sleek design and what is assumed to be cutting-edge assault weaponry. Together, this visual approach from Patrice Vermette creates instant familiarity for the viewer, easing us into a story that has just enough elements of identifiable human existence to introduce and frame the characters without needing to spend too much expositional time trying to get to grips with the context in which they are operating. Instead, with a bit of societal and political explanation, the story can hit the ground running.

Villeneuve’s masterstroke is to combine classic depictions of machinery but wrap them in futuristic packages, so many of the helicopter-like ships and guns are drawn from 1970s and 1980s references with buttons to press, monitors to track altitude, while the film also has an interest in the effect of knives, poisons and swords as well as the more explosive armoury that gives the film this depth. In fact, the influences from the big action movies and space films of these decades are clear, not only Star Wars of course, but, surprisingly, Top Gun which set a standard for the way in which the aerial attack and tracking sequences take place.

Villeneuve draws on Tony Scott’s prior work in showing both the high stakes perspective of the craft under attack, taking an internal and external cockpit perspective that shows the strain on the pilot – be it protagonist Paul or mentor Duncan (Jason Momoa) – as well as his view of enemy ships preparing to hone-in on their target. The quick cuts heighten the tension in these aerial battles, adding jeopardy in the same way that Tom Cruise’s ‘Maverick’ experienced in simulator flights and MIG attacks which is an interesting reference point for a film set thousands of years beyond the action of Top Gun.

We see similar influences in Bob Morgan and Jacqueline West’s Medieval meets Middle East meets centuries from now dress design that also take-in a responsiveness to the desert elements so vital to the credible creation of place and character in Dune. To cope with heat and the often destructive sand-filled wind, fabrics are loose, blowsy or draped for both men and women when venturing beyond the Palace compound while drawing a determined class distinction between those growing up off-world (and in regal surroundings) and the Fremen desert community led by Javier Bardem’s Stilagar, seeking to protect themselves from the imposition of different colonialist communities.

The references to flexible and even fight-proof Medieval / Early Modern costume design are vast, most obviously Game of Thrones, The Witcher and films like Outlaw King, Macbeth and The King (also Timothee Chalamet), mixing with futurist and, even more notably, religious influences that favour high-necked, floor-length gowns for women at court. The famous stillsuit that protects fighters in battle, allowing them to breath in the spice-infused desert air, are built as grey exoskeletons, costumes that are given a uniform look and feel to strengthen the sense of conformity and military force – like the X-Men bodysuits from First Class but with added safety features in camouflage colours.

Villeneuve’s vision is complete and evocative, weaving these varied influences seamlessly together and then blending them with a sprawling dynastic story about the imposition of rulers, climate change and interplanetary political conflict that must display differences in class, culture, experience and belief while taking the hero on a coming-of-age journey that by the end of Part One leaves him ready to assume the responsibilities he has been born to, as well as those prophesised for him by believers seeking Messianic intervention and deliverance. That astute combination of visual spectacle, context creation and narrative development is achieved in a film that Villeneuve makes both epic and intimate, complex and driven specifically by Paul’s evolution and growing understanding that makes Dune an exciting and enthralling piece of cinema.

The family unit is an important construct in the first part of Dune, creating an interesting sense of inherited entitlement for a House given the opportunity to return to and rule their homeland, noting the generations before who, like Paul, have learned to fight, to participate in political counsels and to understand the culture of leadership. This coming-of-age trope is familiar, even in space movies where the hero is required to put those skills into practice before the end of the film to demonstrate his worthiness to inherit the mantles of his historic forebears.

Along the way, there must be trial and tribulation, suffering to shape the young protagonist, often with the sacrifice of a beloved item or companion, that gives personal depth to his quest. This, Dune manages particularly well as Paul adjusts not only to his new home but also to the budding responsibilities that his future requires of him. The sacrifices that inevitably accompany this before the end of Part One must leave him in a position to relinquish the past, knowing the his future is not only to apply his training but to forge a new path alone.

Chalamet is perfectly cast as Paul, carrying the film with considerable ease, and Villeneuve has been savvy in choosing an actor capable of great depth ad capacity. Action and Sci-fi movies have given gravitas to their subject matter by countering the CGI and action scenes with character development and, crucially, psychology. This has been best achieved with respected actors including McKellen and Stewart in the original X-Men series and then Fassbender and McAvoy (the more recent films suffering by moving away from their compelling chemistry). Likewise, Marvel has taken the once small role of Loki and, based largely on Hiddleston’s performance, created a beloved character with his own spin-off parallel world. Chalamet has those same qualities as an actor, able to express so much with few words while bringing a seriousness of purpose and grounding to the dialogue that helps to embed the film’s more fanciful tropes.

As he did with The King, Paul is also a creation feeling the burden of his father’s expectations and wanting to find a different, more responsive path. Sensitive and alive to the implication of conquest that his family’s presence represents, Chalamet’s Paul is initially dismissive of the various prophesies and predictions that accompany his arrival. Part of that coming-of-age journey is to recognise and understand the fallibility of his parents as he learns more about the religious background of his mother and the powers that his dual heritage brings.

Crucially, Chalamet has that double capacity to carry those weightier scenes involving family, politics and the future of an empire resting on his shoulders as well as credible action sequences as his character learns to fight, to escape and ultimately to lead as the events of Part One unfold. And charting Paul’s development across this film merges perfectly with the changing audience perspective so we, like the people of Arakkis see Paul evolve in Chalamet’s performance, absorbing the official lessons as well as the circumstantial changes that help his protagonist become a credible action hero by the end of the film, one who becomes an accepted and blooded fighter in a crucial test of mettle that leaves the story and the character on the cusp of significant change.

And part of this coming-of-age development is to live through and instigate the breakdown of pre-existing social structures, aided by those purposeful action sequences, discussed earlier, in which the life Paul has known and his support system are effectively curtailed. War in the later stages of Part One results in changes to the medieval hierarchy which had divided into three classifications, nobility, military services and established religious leaders, who held power within the court. In taking Paul through the story, a democratisation occurs both in his thinking and his position that leaves him closer to the forgotten native people of Arrakis, a point at which the character encounters the feared Fremen tribe and becomes synonymous with the natural world and the political emancipation and education that will seemingly determine his future path and the future stability of the planet.

Like Bond, Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser create a beautiful and artistic visual style for the film, most obviously referencing the epic desert films Lawrence of Arabia in the sheer scale and intensity of the landscape as well as The English Patient, notable particularly for Antony Minghella’s aerial shots that captured the undulating sand dunes which Villeneuve nods to here. But Fraser creates a place that is both glossy and forbidding, a dreamscape almost, often obscured by the particles of sand in the wind that blend the unmistakable location footage with the fantasy world of Arakkis. Together, these visual choices and production decisions give the film its authentic feel that help to underpin and properly situate the Atreides family saga.

With plenty of political, social and scientific messages in Herbert’s original novel as well as meaningful performances from a fine cast including Oscar Isaacs, Josh Brolin, Stelland Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling and Golda Rosheuvel plus cinematic influences from a huge range of action movies, there is plenty of depth and scope to Dune. The thoughtfulness of Villeneuve’s movie adaptation of Dune and the wide-ranging directorial, historic and aesthetic influences that combine to create this two-part production are hugely appealing, providing enough familiarity to root the story in a recognisable period-future context that enhances the central coming-of-age narrative.

Dune is released in cinemas on 21 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Last Night in Soho – London Film Festival

Last Night in Soho - London Film Festival

The allure of Soho may have dimmed in recent decades as chain coffee shops, pubs and restaurants have taken over the tiny patch of land between Shaftesbury Avenue and north Oxford Street. But the tiny cobbled streets are filled with an exciting social and cultural history, particularly from the immediate post-war era until really the 1980s that drew countless men and women eager to drink and dance, a place they could be themselves or even someone better. The exciting revelry and alternative culture found in its subterranean bars, members clubs and residential housing is endlessly attractive to dramatists looking to tell stories of wide-eyed youngsters finding new lifestyles in those heady days of abandon and happy oblivion.

But this vision of Soho was never real, it is a backwards projection, an attempt to recapture the nostalgia of times that felt free and unencumbered before everything decisively changed. And whether that was the economic depression and anti-corruption work of the 1970s or the terrible toll of AIDs in the 1980s, cultural projections of Soho are trying to bottle a single spark, a moment not dissimilar to that last Edwardian summer before the start of the First World War, as we try to retrospectively impose order on the chaos of the past, as though somehow the people there should always have know their time was running out.

Soho was a very dangerous place in the 1960s and Edgar Wright’s new film Last Night in Soho, released later this month and previewed at the London Film Festival, has an astonishing craft and seems designed to specifically jolt the audience out of its romanticised image of the era. Filled with people who had nowhere else to go, Wright’s historic Soho is alive with dangerous men who exploit women, preying on their fantasies of being someone special, luring them along darker paths to a kind of soulful and bodily destruction. A place of lurking shadows and lurid faces, Wright’s Soho is a grubby abyss, and, strangely, far easier to believe in than its glamorous alternatives.

The Duality of Women

It is a strange concept for a movie, using a young fashion student, Eloise, arriving from Cornwall to train as a designer at the University of the Arts, arriving in present-day London for the first time filled with hopes and the inevitable dreams of escape from the solitude of her country life. The film uses those sleeping visions as a means to awaken her to her own innocence. And Wright’s method for doing that is not just an aggressive welcome from the, somewhat underwritten and distinctly high school movie, bullies in her fashion class, or by giving her a terrible love affair with a suave but underserving rake, but by utterly terrorising Eloise with the timeslip biography of a fallen women whose body the young student unwillingly inhabits each night.

1960s Sandie is everything Eloise is not, confident, driven and certain that she will make it big from the moment she first steps into Soho. Seeking out a spot as a singer and dancer, Sandie is assured with men, dresses with flair and refuses to be second best. She wants everything right now and she is determined to get it. Eloise, by contrast, is initially rather homely, calmed by the easy rhythms of the 60s music she listens to endlessly, and isolated by her shyness from those around her, feeling out of place and particularly ‘uncool’ next to her more worldy course colleagues.

Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns do something quite interesting in merging these characters together and, while played by separate actors, in the early part of the film, they share a personality with Eloise subsumed into the body and image of Sandie, allowing her to see and experience those Soho nights as though they are really happening to her. We see the two traditionally assigned sides of female personality in these characters, the vamp and the virgin or, as Mad Men referred to it, the Marilyn and the Jackie.

Yet, the writing doesn’t linger too long here and as the film heads in some darker directions, we see personality development in both characters that frees them from the stereotypes being projected onto them, largely by others in the story. There is vulnerability within Sandie, a deep wound that grows as circumstances play out, and we see her become almost greyer as the continual round of suffering wears down that bubbling confidence. Similarly, Eloise becomes increasingly frightened but in doing so, reaches a greater degree of independence and resilience than she did before, finding her way in the present day and, quite quickly, developing her own distinctive look to reflect the growth of her character.

Ultimately, Wright and Wilson-Cairns do much here to reinstate the more negative and seedier side of 1960s Soho and its less appetising consequences for young women threatened and coerced into performing for men. Those wistful Soho memories of drinking and carousing in this garish light now become male-only stories while the history for women at this time was quite different. And, despite what is so often recounted as a positive era of sexual liberation, for the waitresses, nightclub singers and hostesses of Soho, their bodies were not their own.

Creating the Whirl of Soho

Working with Art Directors Victoria Allwood, Tim Blake, Emily Norris and Oli van der Vijver, Production Designer Marcus Rowland and Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography, Soho is beautifully rendered and warped on screen, asking the audience to consider which version of the area is the true distortion. As Eloise and Sandie experience 60s Soho for the first time at the Cafe de Paris, it is a vision of colour as Sandie’s striking coral dress stands out against the rich scarlet drapes and plush seating in the club, filled with mirrors and light in which the women can see one another. It’s exactly what we have been told these spaces looked liked, elegant and charismatic, filled with energy and life.

But as the film unfolds, those visual choices and Wright’s camerawork becomes increasingly erratic, imposing on and disorientating our perspective as events blur. The past and present shatter and fragment, bleeding into one another, while the growing sense of foreboding, of something sinister building, strips away the gloss of those early scenes. That much of this reflects a kind of madness in Eloise, a manifestation of the disintegration between her daily life and the night terrors that grip her is interestingly achieved and, while likely to be divisive, Wright’s approach is unashamedly bold, all the more so for hitting the mark more often than it misses.

Modern Soho has a more pedestrian feel in the daytime but looks increasingly appealing in the night shoots as Eloise comes to appreciate some aspects of her present day life. The use of neon signs and interior light here makes Soho look more welcoming than in the earlier decade while some of the rain-based shots that create colourful reflections are lovely. The parties may be less stylish to look at, but Wright still creates that consistent sense of crowds drawn to small rooms in this part of town to drink, dance and forget, adding energy to the present day that retains Soho’s liveliness.

Staging London Past and Present

Taking place, then, in two versions of Soho, the very recognisable present day and, grafted on top, the initially more beguiling 1960s version, Wright’s time-bending film pays tribute to the exact geography of the place. With street names unchanged, we see both Eloise and her earlier counterpart Sandie tripping down the same roads on their way to adventure-filled encounters, both nervous but open to the possibility of what lies ahead. Wright heightens the late 1960s era just a touch, creating different shop fronts and street furniture that brings a keen eye to the changing physicality of the district but purposefully draws geographical consistencies between the decades in the warren of streets.

For the keen-eyed Londoner there is much to delight-in and those familiar with Soho and the surrounding areas will note a true rarity in film, that characters are seen to walk through genuinely connected streets, turning corners and arriving at exactly the right place. A minor distraction in many films and television shows set in familiar places and the cause of much post-viewing debate when, for example, Parliament is ludicrously visible from Tower Bridge. So this wonderful precision about Wright’s decision-making here enhances the story, adding an awareness that the filmmakers want their version of Soho to be as credible as possible for those who will notice.

However, Fitzrovia does pop into the film on occasion with Goodge Place as the lodging house for both women and Eloise’s student halls, while one notable scene tracks Sandie through a little known alleyway leading from Rathbone Street, which are technically beyond Soho. Yet, some suspension of disbelief is permissible in a film that is otherwise remarkably faithful to the area it depicts.

The End of the Night

Wright’s film is on far shakier ground as it draws to its horror-infused conclusion in which Eloise is first tormented by the ghosts of the past and then confronts a possibly predictably reality, one that feels a little too cartoonish in execution to fully shock. The film has built the premise that the past and the present are entwined and there are many precedents for the kind of haunting we see here, but the approach tips almost into parody in the hunt for a conclusion that goes slightly too far, becomes too melodramatic to satisfy the greater nuance and multi-layered storytelling that has gone before.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s star continues to rise and she is stunning as Sandie, a character we only see snippets of but who feels rounded and alive. Taylor-Joy is especially good at showing the wear in Sandie, almost as though she’s turned off the lights from the inside which affectingly captures the lot of many Soho women in one short scene. Her counterpart Thomasin McKenzie is a very likeable heroine, emitting a palpable outsider status and growing discomposure as the truth emerges. Matt Smith is charmingly vicious as 1960s manager Jack and Diana Rigg gives landlady Miss Collins some interesting edges. Synnove Karlsen could be better used as Jocasta, a rather one dimensional character for an actor capable of carrying a TV series, while a very unexpected and unnecessarily brief cameo from Sam Clafin seems a waste of another talented performer in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role, some of which must have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Last Night in Soho celebrates the craft of filmmaking; it is vibrant, ambitious and in marrying together a stylistic approach, storytelling and the physical layout of a beloved part of London, feels like something really new. The ending and the slightly overblown effect of the horror tropes may be forgivable given the interesting things the film has to say about our cultural memories of Soho and the experience of the forgotten women who suffered for it.

Last Night in Soho opens in UK cinemas on 29 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Mirror and the Light – Gielgud Theatre

The Mirror and the Light - Gielgud Theatre (by Tristram Kenton)

Last year, Hilary Mantel completed what was a mammoth undertaking with her thrice Booker nominated novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell. Regardless of opinions about their density or narrative style, the trilogy is unarguably a landmark in modern fiction that reorientates an already too familiar era, bringing insight and humanity to the reign of Henry VIII. The Royal Shakespeare Company now completes its own mammoth undertaking with the dramatisation of the final novel The Mirror and the Light, beating the BBC who have also adapted Mantel’s Booker-winning earlier segments. Unusually for the RSC, this show premiers in London rather than Stratford.

Opening at the Gielgud Theatre this week, what successfully sets the stage version of The Mirror and the Light apart from its predecessors is the inclusion of lead actor Ben Miles on the writing team, working with Mantel to adapt the 900-page source material for the theatre. And Miles brings such craft to the task of playwright, an actor and technician rather than a novelist’s eye, slimming the plot to its essential elements to build tension as Cromwell completes his character arc with one final chapter. The result is a far sprightlier piece of theatre that turns its episodic quality into an interesting character study of the King and his best man.

The challenges of adapting a novel for the stage are not insubstantial, especially one of such size and depth as The Mirror and the Light. How to take interior monologue and authorial voice that dominate the construction of the novel and transform that into a visual medium is not easy when characters almost always have to say things which are usually thought. That process can sometimes feel clunky or unlike natural speech, while the alternatives including soliloquies or dream sequences can unbalance the tone if the individuals are seen to talk to no one.

Instead, the problem for Mantel and Miles is to present enough of the book’s shape through the prudent selection of material and opportunities for characters to unpack their thoughts and emotional developments through speech, or, more crucially, creating strategic moments of pause where performance can fill the void that words and description leave behind.

The added complexity in this adaptation is the historical reality of the setting, a place that every schoolchild knows well, so managing the audience’s expectations while resisting the urge to play to them is tricky. This is not a version of Henry VIII’s story as The Tudors was, but quite specifically a reading of Mantel’s novel which must consistently present the play through that lens, seeing it from Mantel’s perspective is vital. Key to that is to maintain Cromwell’s point of view and centrality to the narrative around which more recognisable events take place. Almost like a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, this is familiar but unfamiliar, a story we know but seen from a new angle.

This adaptation of The Mirror and the Light largely achieves that, ensuring Cromwell remains at the heart of the work around which Henry’s marital woes play out. Across 2.5 hours of action, Mantel and Miles extract events and conversations from the novel that advance our understanding of Crowell as a character and how the forces mass against him. Their skill here is in drawing the sequence of events together and making them appear haphazard, as life happens day by day, and with no sense of predetermined outcome as Cromwell navigates and controls those around him. Yet, Mantel and Miles build-in a series of markers through the play, points of no return that take Cromwell towards his destruction, communing with the past and his living antagonists including the Duke of Norfolk and Bishop Gardiner who push Cromwell beyond his own powers.

As a character study, this is the place at which the ghosts are beginning to gather for the King’s favourite and, drawing on a key theme from the novel, Cromwell spends almost as much time looking backwards as he does forwards, troubled, even fatally unsettled, by his role in past events including the long shadow of Wolsey’s fall from grace that facilitated Cromwell’s own rise to power. The appearance of the Cardinal’s spirit is sparingly managed, often providing small opportunities for comedy as Cromwell explores his own soul as well as his connection to those who continue to haunt the survivors. His own father acts here as a conscience, pulling at Cromwell’s surety as he worries about the consequences of rising too high and knowing how far there is to fall. Something explored in many pages within the novel makes a neat transition to the stage with this simple but evocative device, all the more effective for its limited use.

Mantel and Miles create shape in the staging by adding what is in effect a lengthy pre-title sequence showing the beginning of the end for the lead, and The Mirror and the Light wastes no time in launching into the action with a bemused but still deliberating Cromwell being questioned in the Tower, a sequence that lasts for several minutes to frame the play. This anchors the audience, giving the narrative a driving point to return to while simultaneously resonating with the memory theme that underscores this third play. From here, the primary action becomes a flashback, reinforcing this notion that Cromwell is reflecting on his choices and trying to decipher the moment or moments it all went wrong.

All of this gives The Mirror and the Light greater dramatic purpose than the earlier parts, both of which were a little stiffer in their construction – the downside of producing adaptations before the ending (other than the obvious) is not knowing quite how the novelist will construe the conclusion – but Mantel and Miles also give this final instalment a greater levity, a natural, easy humour that feeds through the show. Some of that is in the more obvious comedy created by the appearance of spirits as well as knowing references to the future for Henry such as his impending Howard bride. But there is also an artful wryness in the dialogue that feels credible in the interactions between Cromwell and others, giving him an offhand charisma that reinforces his grounding in this court, the relationships he has built to keep the business of the State running smoothly and giving him gradations as a character.

The role of Cromwell fits Ben Miles like a glove and here he cements his position as the greatest personification of Mantel’s hero, even better than Rylance, in his ability to balance the sense of command and administrative excellence with the growing doubts as Cromwell, now with so much to lose, walks the tightrope of monarchical support, a significant aspect of which is to chart his failing judgement and the subtle influence of Jane Rochester in, intentionally or not, poisoning his mind. On stage almost for the entirety of the show, there is a satisfying balance in Miles’s performance and his ease in the role exactly conveys Cromwell’s own comfortable position and certainty even to the last moments of his freedom.

This is immeasurably aided by Miles’s role in crafting a script that allows him to build into the creation all of the characteristics and styles that play to his strengths as an actor, always looking to understate within the dialogue in order to give himself space to act the role. A failing of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies was a tendency to overwrite where the lead can demonstrate, and here this balance is much tighter, the result of which is to bolster Miles’s dominance of the character, freeing him up to bring nuance and grace to a trilogy of performances that are nothing less than definitive.

Reprising his roles as Henry, Nathaniel Parker also expands on his performance as the blustering King chaffing against the control of his courtiers – another notable theme from the novel that transitions well to the stage. Parker’s Henry is also afforded room to explore his desire for love that contends with his duty and there are some lovely moments in the aftermath of Jane’s death and his doomed marriage to Anna of Cleeves where Parker can show an almost childlike emotional simplicity in Henry that brings depth to the ‘old bear’.

There is strength in the female roles and Melissa Allan makes a great deal of the devoutly religious Lady Mary who displays the stubbornness and even the ire that defines her future, but she is also a frightened young woman looking for sympathy and finding a fragment of human connection with Cromwell. Similarly, Olivia Marcus makes Jane purposefully bland, a blank canvas onto which Henry can project an image of his perfect wife, while Rosanna Adams pitches the warming of Anna of Cleeves just right, the accent and manner giving her an otherness in the court with just enough relief at being able to have fun in England for the first time.

Designer Christopher Oram returns to his tomb-like set, creating the impression of grand medieval buildings with a multi-layered metal cage hanging over the actors, which fractionally lowers as Cromwell nears his end. The simplicity of the design with few props and stage furniture actually becomes a representative space for many locations allowing Director Jeremy Herrin to swiftly turn scenes to maintain that springy momentum that Mantel and Miles have built into the script. All of this is enhanced Stephen Warbeck’s imposing soundscape that crackles with portents while Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design appears to draw on Flemish paintings of light in church spaces to create a Protestant starkness for the court, but also uses colour to imply the blazing warmth of fires and the dreamier hues of the spirit world.

Depending on your taste for comedy, here and there the approach is a little too broad including the presentation of the Duke of Suffolk, while the singular inclusion of a scene with Wolsey’s daughter is a little superfluous outside the novel (and arguably within it). Yet Mantel and Miles have combined a sizeable semi-fictional tome and the familiar historical story of Henry VIII, distilling them into a properly theatrical show with something new to say about this era and the humble man who, for 10 years, commanded a king.

The Mirror and the Light is at the Gielgud Theatre until 23 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Normal Heart – National Theatre

The Normal Heart - National Theatre

Creating socio-political change and even recognition doesn’t just happen, somewhere, sometime, someone has to fight for it, and history is full of organisations who since the end of absolute monarchies (and arguably even before) have tried to make their voices heard. Activists, anarchists, revolutionaries, freedom fighters, radicals, call them what you will, ultimately they all face the same question – do you use peaceable means to lull the government into meetings and reasonably state your case, or incite protest and even violence to force the issue? Larry Kramer’s powerful play The Normal Heart, which celebrates its 35-year anniversary with a National Theatre revival, explores this issue as a group of New Yorkers in the early 80s try to draw attention to a deadly virus stalking the gay community.

With press night later this week, expect to hear plenty of references to Angels in America, It’s a Sin and The Inheritance as recent stage and screen representations of the same era, as well as obvious allusions to our experience of the last 18-months. And while The Normal Heart indeed has much in common with these approaches in its character-driven structure on an epic scale, Kramer’s exploration of the nuances, barriers and conflicts within the community set this play apart, looking as much at the political organisation of awareness campaigns and pressure groups as the stories of the men disagreeing about how they should fight for their lives.

From the Luddites to the Suffragettes, the Diggers to the Chartists, organisations demanding change have always found themselves divided on the issue of whether the end justifies the means. The Chartists in particularly were hugely conflicted between William Lovett’s peaceable and domestic aims for social reform which included Sunday schools and educational improvement of the working classes, and those of fellow-leader Fergus O’Connor whose more explosive approach pushed physical force as a means of ratifying the People’s Charter. And here, in The Normal Heart, Kramer expands on a similar division between the hot-headed Alexander ‘Ned’ Weeks and the closeted Bruce Niles who become co-leaders of a single organisation that pulls in two contentious directions.

The story runs chronologically from 1981-1984 during a period when political and medical groups refused to acknowledge the presence of an epidemic moving through a community they equally pretended did not exist. But the virus itself had yet to be properly identified and the consequences of this are the context for Kramer’s play, focusing on a period of considerable uncertainty as cases were doubling rapidly in New York and the first deaths occurred. As authority figures remained unmoved, refusing even to fund pioneering medical experiments, how to break through that wall of silence is the play’s dramatic driver. The formation of an advocacy and support group for the community becomes increasingly bureaucratic, and Kramer astutely balances their growing frustration with government process and the unpreparedness of its members for the scale of the fight as the disease takes hold, intricately combining the personal and the political.

The distinction Kramer draws between radical and peaceable protest is managed through the subtly changing nature of the organisation that Ned and Bruce start together. What was – to paraphrase one of Ned’s impassioned speeches – a start-up in his living room becomes a formal, almost corporate-style entity with the introduction first of a President-figure as the acceptable public face of a charitable concern, and later a Board who manage operations and personnel. As the game and its scale changes, the balance between activism and lobbying makes miniscule shifts throughout the play; where once the group distributed newsletters, Kramer raises the stakes, so as more men are infected, their organisation is simultaneously required to adapt its behaviour and tactics for a bigger audience, becoming increasingly embroiled in government petitions and appeals.

What this means for the characters is equally defining and while O’Connor’s belief in physical force created a temporary swell for the Chartists, Ned’s outspokenness is seen to be detrimental to himself and his movement. Kramer manages this with care; Ned is the anchor of the play, an isolated figure in many ways who espouses some extreme views on abstinence that ruffle feathers, but Kramer never judges his lead and, in fact, Ned’s claims are never shown to be wrong – in fact much of what he says proves in time to be correct – only his refusal to play by the rules and allow others to bury their heads in the sand, mark him out as an agitator who knows the only way to achieve his aim quickly is to forego the social niceties and create a public disturbance.

Bruce, by contrast, is the role model leader, a man concealing his sexuality to maintain a lifestyle. With a well-paid job at a leading bank, a reputation to protect and plenty of business contacts, Bruce is an inside man, someone who knows how to charm the mayor’s office or a journalist into taking a meeting where he can gently apply the right kind of pressure to advance their cause. While Ned questions Bruce’s bravery and desire for privacy, the context Kramer creates for him in that particular professional world in the early 1980s makes sense of Bruce as a character and his desire to use the proper channels.

And this contrast leads to considerable nuance in the presentation of the community, drawing out strands of disagreement and discontent not often seen in equivalent works. Far from one homogenous group, Kramer looks deeply at what is a fractured and confused community of men, some believing that waiting and watching is the best course of action while cases are low and undefined, while others like Ned know this is the start of something bigger. Kramer here is looking at the process of hindsight, noting that it is easy to look back and think more should have been done sooner, but the variety of responses he presents in The Normal Heart consider how little concrete information was really available during those years and how difficult it was to pitch a suitable response.

Kramer’s play also considers this a crisis point in the external presentation of gay lifestyles with the fear that promiscuity was creating a negative and limited perspective on sexuality as primarily a physical act. Despite his more active approach, Ned is the one who wants to expand the impression of same-sex relationships, making another impassioned speech about the contributions of writers, scientists and creatives who he feels connected to and wanting to continue the growth of a cultural identity that extends beyond sex. By contrast, the character of Mickey Marcus in particular feels tainted by what he sees as Ned’s judgemental stance and in an important middle section talks about having fought for the right to be open and free, and struggles with now being labelled a ‘murderer’ and shamed for it.

In Dominic Cooke’s new production in-the-round on the Olivier stage, all of these themes are given the space to emerge and overlap during the show’s near three hour running time. There are lots of knotty debates and interlocking strands, but there is clarity in how these very different ideas are shaped within the play as Kramer treats the broad ranges of opinion and belief espoused by his characters with compassion. They may be united by a social scene but they have very different backgrounds and attitudes, amplified by the exposing nature of the playing space.

As a director Cooke, whose earlier success in this auditorium includes the incomparable Follies, has a feel for the emotional currents within a play and the different illusions that characters have about themselves and their situations, especially at the moment these are shattered or re-routed. Cooke finds those beats in The Normal Heart, creating a minimal visual impression in order to fill the space with character arcs, social shifts and the emotional impact of a story that successfully balances the complicated process of dissidence and protest with the often devastating everyday impact on the lives of the men trying to fighting these bigger battles on all fronts.

Designed by Vicki Mortimer (who also worked with Cooke on Follies), the simple marbled floor and benches have a dual purpose, simultaneously representing the foyer of grand buildings like City Hall, where Ned and Bruce must fight for recognition, and the conventional business-like locations that symbolise Bruce’s background and the governance structure that evolves within the advocacy group. There is a coldness and formality in Mortimer’s design that underscores the character’s struggles for official support, but there is also a subtle tomb-like feel to the staging that acts as a memorial to the countless men referenced yet never seen who die in the course of the play, enhanced further by the continuous flame that burns above the action throughout.

Delayed by the pandemic, Ben Daniels has swapped a previously announced part in the upcoming Manor for the role of Ned in The Normal Heart and it is a worthy exchange. Daniels’s Ned has a true and unyielding conviction, a man of extreme emotional states who believes in his causes as ardently as he eventually comes to love Felix. That slow opening up is something Daniels presents extremely well, and while never disconnected from the suffering of his friends, his relationship gives him a different perspective on the urgency of official support and acknowledgement. Daniels’s Ned can be harsh, even cruel in his desire to shake others out of their complacency while his fervency is sometimes misguided, but appearing in almost every scene Daniels fills the room with Ned’s burning zeal, while delivering his very fine speeches with sensitivity.

Luke Norris is equally skilful as Bruce navigating a complex position between two very different societies. Although there is very limited time to see his more emotional side, Norris creates plenty of empathy for Bruce, struggling to balance his public life with what he believes is the right and only direction for the advocacy group. His frustrations with Ned conceal an admiration for him, and there are some explosive and tender moments between the men that Norris weaves into a very meaningful performance.

Daniel Monks is superb as ever in the role of Mickey diligently supporting the administration of the organisation while feeling increasingly burdened by the polarisation of opinion. Danny Lee Wynter adds flair as the Southern Tommy Boatwright able to lighten the mood with a sharp riposte while Liz Carr brings a crusading spirit and authority to the role of Dr Emma Brookner. Robert Bowman also adds plenty of depth as Ned’s brother Ben who represents a more traditional standpoint but tries to understand this alternative perspective.

As with any in-the-round production, the blocking here tends to favour the traditional auditorium so those in the onstage seating won’t see the actor’s faces during many of the big speeches, but it barely detracts from the impact of this incredible play. Looking at the process of recognition and political activism during a period where almost no information was available, The Normal Heart offers a different perspective on these early days of HIV and, like the scores of political groups before them, leaves the audience wondering whether violent or orderly protest is the best way to be heard.

The Normal Heart is at the National Theatre until 6 November with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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