This House – National Theatre Tour


This House - National Theatre Tour

As we wade through the deepening quagmire that has become Westminster politics, it’s hard not to look back at the Coalition government of 2010-2015 as a brighter more optimistic time in modern Britain. On the surface at least, the hung Parliament offered a chance to put party division aside, forcing politicians to work together and finally reflect what seemed to be a growing public disillusion with opposition for opposition’s sake and the petty playground tactics of party politics. No one thought it would last the year, but from the outside the Conservative-Liberal Coalition government seemed optimistic, fresh and, coinciding with the London Olympics, it was a time of proper compromise, national pride and inclusion.

Of course it wasn’t. As every A-level politics teacher will tell you, coalitions mean instability in which someone always loses, in this case the Liberal Democrats who were decimated at the 2015 election. But from where we are now – divided and uncertain with shambolic leadership – how halcyonic those days of the Coalition now seem. They happen so rarely that they fascinate us, before 2010 the last coalition government was almost 40 years before from 1974-1979, a scrappy affair in which the Whips kept the Labour Party in government by the skin of their teeth for just shy of a full term. Drawing a direct parallel between the two eras, This House, first performed in 2012, and currently on a nationwide tour, is a fascinating insight into “the deals business”.

It’s been a least 5 minutes since someone last heaped praise on writer James Graham, and with two 2018 Olivier nominations for his most recent West End successes, Ink and Labour of Love, and the transfer of his superb new play Quiz in a fortnight, it’s a good opportunity to look back at where it all began, the also Olivier nominated This House. Well, not quite where it all began, there was plenty of admirable fringe work, but Graham’s first big West End show enjoyed runs in two of the auditoria at the National Theatre in 2012 and a 2015 revival in Chichester which then transferred to the Garrick in 2016. Having managed to miss all of these, and a little late to the political party, the current National Theatre tour, which runs until June, docked at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last week, and proves a well-researched and engaging response to our recent political history.

Its 1974 and Labour scrape into power with a wafer-thin majority which, for its team of Whips, means a tough 5 years lay ahead as they are forced to make deals not only with the smaller opposition parties but with their own MPs just to get bills through the House. As they cling to power, it becomes harder to keep the ship afloat, and when an accusation of cheating tears up the informal rule book the Tory Whips amplify hostilities. Is staying in power enough if you can’t actually govern?

Graham’s play utilises three structural pillars to give shape to the rather circular business of Government activity, with the story outlining the many rounds of debate and manipulation required to achieve a majority vote on bill after bill. First, the play limits itself to two main locations, the opposing offices of the main party Whips, where all information, news and drama is distilled effectively through the experiences of these rooms. It ensures the focus of the play remains tightly on this set of decisive characters who we come to know well, while heightening both the dramatic tension and comedic effect as plans and their outcomes are cooked-up and debated by each side.

These are then batted back-and-forth as successive scenes cut from one side to the other, occasionally even completing each other’s sentences or stories like an elaborate and fast-moving game of tennis. Graham avoids repetitiveness by inserting merged scenes where votes are won and lost in the house itself, and a thematic section on the physical and moral decrepitude staged behind the famous Parliamentary clock-face. All of this serves to create a sense of the wider political activity beyond the walls of the office – one of the most successful aspects of This House is the credible world it creates, that all the talking genuinely reflects a high stakes game being played by hundreds of MPs around the building.

Second, Graham uses the role of the Speaker of the House to act as our guide to events, so just as he does in the Chamber, here he announces the constituency name of every MP to appear on the stage. This gives the audience both a sense of the formalities of Parliamentary life and the enormous job of the Whips in trying to balance the far-reaching needs of around 600 elected representatives trying to earn favour for their constituencies or personal advancement in the party. As a theatrical tool, it also allows the cast to play multiple roles in a series of small cameos while helping the audience keep track.

Finally, there are the aspects of construction that have since become hallmarks of Graham’s entertaining style – the integration of music, popular culture references and hyper-real montages that demonstrate a flair for popular engagement. These were less notable in Labour of Love but Ink and Quiz married serious debate with a lightness of touch that rarely combine so well. This House has some full-cast choreographed numbers, quick-fire tableaux as desperate deals are made on the hoof or as the sick are wheeled in to vote, while the onstage band visible leave their hippy stylings behind to embrace the emergence of punk as the 70s wear all. All small but careful touches that add to the richness of the work and the era it reflects.

At its heart, This House is a debate about the purpose of government, when clinging on to power becomes more important than doing any of the things the party was elected for. As the deals become harder to put together, we’re shown the growing separation between constituency and party, between toeing the line and personal conscience, between active government and just keeping the others out. None of it is very pretty or even admirable, but there’s still a sense that the British style of democracy, when it works, is ultimately irreplaceable.

Amidst all of this, Graham still manages to create a set of central characters that the audience can invest in, regardless of their political allegiance. Chief among them is Martin Marquez’s Bob Mellish, a tough working-class bruiser whose realistic management of the Whips office belies a passionate love of the party he’s devoted his career to. Marquez’s sharp characterisation sets the tone for those who fall into his orbit, and it is Bob’s grit that is keeping the Government afloat.

He’s ably supported by a diverse team of largely northern MPs who share his determination. James Gaddas as permanent deputy Walter Harrison is gruff and overly sure of himself but develops meaningfully as the play unfolds, with a deep buried heart and conscience that begin to beat louder. As the first female Whip, Natalie Grady’s Ann Taylor forges ahead growing in confidence as the years pass, introducing a less confrontational style that still produces results – while Bob and Walter may represent the past, Ann is the future. Grady’s Ann well signifies the clash of idealism with the reality of governing, so like her colleagues must eventually confront the ways in which her own dedication to the party obstructs rather than supports democracy.

On the other team, the three Tory Whips couldn’t be more different. But despite their refined manners and expensive suits, Graham avoids caricature with an equally interesting exploration of their dedication to party cause and entitlement to rule that is challenged by Labour’s shaky term in office. William Chubb’s Humphrey Atkins, like Bob Mellish, is a man out of time, representing a style of politics and fair play that is rapidly disappearing. His contempt for the Government is clear with a series of stinging lines, brilliantly landed by Chubb, that present a man finding opposition unfathomable, a blip in the natural order of things.

But it is Matthew Pidgeon’s Jack Weatherill who develops most, the Tory Deputy Whip whose time in opposition brings into question the whole purpose of his role. Pidgeon subtly relays Weatherill’s growing disillusion with party politics and the internal cost to his own self-assurance that comes from increasingly desperate tactics to frustrate the Government. A clever mirror for Walter Harrison, these two very different men start to question what good they’ve really done in a lifetime of party service.

You care about all of these people, regardless of their party stance, and what could have been a collection of geographical stereotypes, becomes a true representation of the country. The wider cast play around 30 constituency MPs, some just after a new carpet or sofa for their office, one who fakes his own death, one arrested for murder, one breastfeeding in Parliament, some from Scotland or Northern Ireland who need to put nationalism before personal gain, plenty of sick and dying, and a few passionately committed to their socialist roots who vote against their centre-moving party including Louise Ludgate’s broadly comic MP who’d rather pay a £20 fine than go against her conscience. We don’t need to know any of these people well, but they are an indication of the wider tide of Westminster and the competing needs that both sets of Whips must manage on every single vote. And it’s a lovely touch to have a few of them go on an audience meet-and-greet during the interval.

Graham’s play is more than a historical documentary, it is a living, breathing evocation of Parliamentary life that has plenty to say about the male-dominated, macho world of party politics that pits ideology against practicality every single day. And while it focuses on the increasingly unstable attempt to make laws, the wider context of party in-fighting, leadership challenges on both sides and the changing demographic of Labour MPs is as much about the here and now as it is the late 1970s where the shadow of Thatcher and irreparable change looms ominously.

The grubbiness of the system Graham presents in This House explains how we ended up here today, and despite growing apathy with all parties, Graham’s writing makes you care about politics again, makes you believe it matters even when it’s broken. Although written in 2012, the cyclical nature of politics means that the play is just as relevant now, with a Government attempting a major democratic change on a tiny majority, having to make unholy alliances just to get things done. The Coalition government of 2010-2015 may seem like a happier time but this is the result, just spare a thought for the poor Whips, the ‘engine-room’ of Parliament who keep it all afloat.

This House is on national tour until 2 June and scheduled to visit Bath, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Birmingham, Salford, Plymouth, Norwich, Malvern, Guilford and Sheffield. Please check local venues for times and prices. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Summer and Smoke – Almeida Theatre

Summer and Smoke, Almeida Theatre

This time last year, the Almeida was in the middle of a purple patch, one that would produce a successive run of West End transfers with Mary Stuart, Hamlet and Ink all quickly secured hugely successful extensions. Now, their new production of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams once again reminds larger theatres of the power of this small Islington venue; it’s ability not just to attract emerging talent among a pool of actors, writers and directors, but also to reimagine classic plays as fresh and invigorating stories for modern audiences.

Unlike last year’s Young Vic production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Benedict Andrews, which proved to be a “cold seduction” where nudity became a rather insubstantial substitute for chemistry, the Almeida’s interpretation of Summer and Smoke creates an astonishing balance of emotional fragility and electrifying sensual charge. Williams’s work is largely associated with these ideas of repressed or frustrated sexuality that struggles to break free during the course of the play, but he also writes sensitively about the tender pain of impossible love and the often stark self-realisations that follow.

Summer and Smoke is the rather wistful story of young lovers separated by their physical and spiritual concept of relationships. Neighbours since childhood, the anxious Alma becomes drawn to newly qualified doctor John, and in doing so goes against the rules of life, conduct and decency that she aims to live by. Demanding a connection of souls, the young medic’s concentration on the body repels and attracts her in equal measure, never able to fully commit herself. But, as his louche lifestyle takes him into the arms of another woman, the pair find their views begin to change and a decisive moment offers one last chance to breach the divide.

One of the key things you notice in this mesmerising production, skilfully directed by Rebecca Frecknall, is how like D.H. Lawrence it is, and how Williams uses Lawrencian themes to quietly devastating effect on both his characters and his audience. One of the key characteristics of Lawrence’s major novels is the tacit push and pull between two potential lovers, as their ability to form a loving relationship rests not in the external activities and plot devices that surround them, but in the silent and inexplicable moments of ease and discord that spring up wordlessly between them.

In Sons and Lovers, Miriam finds herself at odds with protagonist Paul where a feeling of distance and disagreement seems to exist when they are alone even though they appear destined, or at least they expect, to be together. And it is this inability to reconcile the peace between their souls that sets them on an entirely different course than the one they imagined. This is exactly the tone that Frecknall creates in Summer and Smoke, of two lonely souls craving each other but unable to find a rhythm despite the fervent desire of their bodies and minds.

And loneliness tears through Frecknall’s charged interpretation, manifesting itself in many different ways, as two quite opposite personalities seek solace outside the self. Like Lawrence, Williams is writing about young people at a precipice, where the next choice will define the rest of their life and making the wrong one (or having it made for them) will forever extinguish some kind of flame within them. Desperation reeks through the Almeida’s show, as the moving story of Alma and John becomes a fight for life in which they must find a perfect union or are lost forever not only to each other, but also to themselves.

Cannily staged by Tom Scutt with a circle of pianos played by a small supporting cast in multiple roles, Mark Dickman uses music to infuse the production, perfectly underscoring whole scenes and individual moments with an emotionally-driven score and, even more crucially, wells of silence that engulf the principals’ and audience hearts. Lee Curran’s lighting supports the creation of mood and location which, in a minimal setting, brings out the sunlit heat of the Mississippi town by day and the sultry shadows of night, perfectly reflecting the physical and emotional state of the leads. Scutt and Curran underscore, Williams’s fragmented story as Alma and John’s experience drifts like smoke into view before floating away, fragile and light.

But Frecknall weaves this into a hugely impactful experience, building the tension between the characters in Act One, loading their interactions with greater passion and investment, before allowing Act Two to dissolve around them, emphasising the growing distance and impossibility of their relationship. Deftly directed, Frecknall allows Williams’s story to fill your heart only to break it.

Still early in her career, Patsy Ferran has gathered quite the portfolio of impressive performances in what is still a relatively short CV. With notable roles in Speech and Debate as well as My Mum’s a Tw*t in the last year alone, Ferran is fast becoming one of the most interesting actors on the London stage. She has a particularly gift for presenting the perspective of the outsider, showing the human fears and pain that sit beneath the surface, so she’s perfectly cast as the gentle but nervy singing teacher Alma whose struggles eventually consume body and soul.

Told predominantly from the perspective of restrained Minister’s daughter Alma, Ferran’s performance is full of beautifully judged small gestures which build to form a picture of a young woman emerging from emotional seclusion into a world of feeling. The tragedy lies in the timing. Having chastely loved the boy next door for years, Ferran shows how physical sensation starts to blossom in Alma as she shares a succession of increasingly intimate moments with John. You feel the rippling effect as he lightly takes her pulse for the first time, the virtually scandalous intrusion of a stethoscope to listen to her heart and Ferran makes each act a tug of war between shame and desire, fearing the unexpected flutter of yearning John’s proximity creates while desperately craving it.

As the story unfolds, Alma blooms and her initial awkwardness around him where she’s all heavy limbs and nervous laughter, evolves into a visible determination to be near him, to overcome her reticence and lean into him. In lesser hands, Alma could be frustrating, gawkish and even irritating but it’s so gently done that Ferran holds you in thrall with a performance that subtly merges hope with an inevitable sadness.

John is no less interesting, and while his story is not the central focus of Williams’s play, Matthew Needham builds an equally tragic story of jaded disappointment. John, like Alma, is trapped in a predetermined role, forced into becoming a doctor by his difficult father Dr Buchanan. So, John rebels and Needham brings a sad desperation to his attempts to find solace in the seedy local entertainments. He may womanise, drink and gamble but it’s clear that none of it makes him happy, so every aspect of his life, even the defiant acts against respectability, seem to chip away at his sense of self, drawing him unstoppably towards an unremarkable future.

His physicality is palpable throughout the story and Needham shows John visibly waking-up when he’s with Alma, responding to her presence and feeling drawn to some essential purity in her. As that becomes increasingly complex, Needham charts John’s retreat extremely effectively, so as the tables turn between them and he gives up the fight, watching him succumb to the life he never wanted is very moving. Ferran and Needham have an incredible chemistry, these are two characters that don’t just love but actually infect each other with devastating effect on who they become.

The surrounding cast create a whole town’s worth of people and with some clever doubling of roles get to play opposing interpretations of similar characters. Forbes Masson is both Alma and John’s fathers, the kindly Reverend Winemiller who fears for his daughter’s moral safety and the dastardly Dr Buchanan whose strict rules and uncompromising character drive his son to rebellion. Anjana Vasan plays both the sexy Mexican girl Rosa who John becomes involved with at the same time as Alma, while also performing as the innocent Nellie who makes a play for him in the Second Act – having both roles played by the same actor indicating something about John’s view on the generic face of women who are not Alma.

Much of the play’s humour is centred in the more liberated character of Mrs Winemiller, Alma’s mother who had a breakdown before the start of the story. Nancy Crane brings a sense of uncaring freedom to the role, defying social convention to make jokes at her daughter’s expense, behave childishly and not care. It’s a fascinating contrast not just with the buttoned-up Alma, but also with the more conventionally rebellious John, who doesn’t find a tenth of the happiness that the genuinely free Mrs Winemiller obtains.

Summer and Smoke is a glorious adaptation of one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser known works, and like Peter Gill’s The York Realist entering its final weeks at the Donmar Warehouse, the business of the play is handled with such subtly that it allows the deep emotional connection at the heart of the story to flourish. With a magnetic central pairing, Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke is unmissably beautiful, and the Almeida at its finest.

Summer and Smoke is at the Almeida Theatre until 7 April. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Macbeth – National Theatre

Macbeth, National Theatre

Back in 2016 the Royal Shakespeare Company celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with the televised variety show Shakespeare Live. In a lacklustre event, the chance pairing of Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear performing a scene from Macbeth was a highlight, leading to calls for them to appear in a full-length version of the play. Almost two years later, those calls have been answered by the National Theatre whose new production is one of their most anticipated shows of the year. But despite its enduring popularity, Macbeth is a slippery beast requiring a clear vision for interpreting its complex balance of supernatural influences, human ambition and evil. Many more versions fail than succeed, so does that mean Macbeth is the most difficult Shakespeare play to stage well?

Macbeth is far more than an action-packed story of murder and mayhem, and is one of Shakespeare’s most psychological plays. The central character takes a convoluted path through the story that takes him from loyalty and fealty at the start of the play, through ambition and murder, to doubt, insecurity and even mental delusion that grow into monstrous tyranny. Then, increasingly numbed by the events he sets in motion, Macbeth’s inner drive collapses as he gives himself over to his inevitable doom. It is by no means a linear path, and like a perfect waltz, the perfect Macbeth must contain rise and fall that guides the audience through the muddles of his mind.

Motivation is key to unlocking the play, and understanding why the Macbeths are suddenly driven to murder will shape the entire production. But for the psychology to make sense, a Company must decide three things; first what role the supernatural have in shaping the play’s outcomes – is Macbeth entirely driven by the witches’ prophecy, does fate or destiny or paranormal force inevitability determine his actions regardless of his own agency? Second, what is the balance of power in the Macbeths marriage, does Lady Macbeth force her unwilling husband to murder his friend, is she merely reflecting Macbeth’s own mind back to him, or is there an equality of purpose between them?

Finally, what is Macbeth’s own motivation? Shakespeare has frequently examined the corruptive nature of power and this play is one of his most chilling examples of dark humanity. So is he destroyed by his own human frailty, driven to act by a strange encounter on the blasted heath that stokes a fire he cannot possibly control? Perhaps instead he’s just greedy, a mercenary friend and soldier who sees a chance for personal advancement and takes it remorselessly? Or, a final possibility, is Macbeth just evil, a force of devilry who enjoys destruction for its own sake?

Unfortunately, the National Theatre’s new production, directed by Rufus Norris, hasn’t obviously made any of these choices and after two hours and 45 minutes of watchable and decently paced performance, the audience has learned nothing about the characters or the world they live in. There is plenty of intellectual engagement with the text and plenty of stage technique that attempts to fill the Olivier space, but you never really understand what is driving the Macbeths or how their post-Civil War world fits around the bloody deed.

Rae Smith’s set design and Moritz Junge’s costumes create a puzzle that never satisfactorily resolves the hierarchical nature of the society referenced in the play. While it is a clear attempt to introduce a new style of location – and here read post-Civil War to mean post-apocalyptic – the rag tag group of people in ripped jeans, combat boots and kneepads never quite convince as a feudal society devoted to the weak leadership of King Duncan dressed like Quentin Crisp on hard times. The aesthetic is dystopia, all concrete rooms and giant curtains made of ripped bin bags, which makes the cast seem like a feral band of guerrillas and a few drug addicts than a nation at war with itself. There is no sense of wider armies clashing in the distance, and it becomes increasingly impossible to reconcile how this grubby and fractured scene supports a system of monarchy and aristocracy. What exactly is the concept of kingship or even destiny in this world of concrete bunkers? And why do the Macbeths even do it, what is there to inherit apart from a red suit (steeped in the blood required to steal a monarchy), that wouldn’t look out of place on John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and seemingly no other trappings of majesty, not even a better castle.

Smith’s design is consistent and even visionary, but it doesn’t bring meaning or clarity to the play. Practically, the giant, and rather steep, ramp that doubles for hills may dominate the stage and ensure that those in the Olivier circle can see action take place on a level closer to their eyeline, but the actors seem a little unsteady on it and it just gets in the way. Similarly, the ramp and the head witch’s necklace are covered in broken bits of baby dolls and Action Man figures strung together whose meaning is unclear, and it wasn’t until well into the second Act that it became clear that the tall pipes with a cascade of shredded bin bags on top were trees.

Unfortunately, the design adds nothing to the story its telling and barely makes sense. While there’s clearly lots of intended symbolism here, it’s not at all obvious what this is saying about the play. It is a common problem with staging Shakespeare particularly where a pointless period setting is chosen in lieu of making proper choices about the production’s angle on the story. A similar problem affected the RSC’s Cymbeline in 2016 who chose a comparable dystopian design that added very little. Sadly, Smith and Norris have confused putting Macbeth in strange setting with having a “take” on the play – they’re not quite the same thing.

This inconsistency of purpose feeds through into the performances as well, and as impressive as Rory Kinnear usually is, he doesn’t get under the skin of Macbeth at all. On this same stage in 2015, his Iago was one of the finest we’ve seen, but Iago is really a politician in a flak jacket and while Kinnear brings that element to his Macbeth, of an oily predator waiting for a chance to strike, he struggles to convey the true aggression of a trained soldier and, initially at least, a beloved leader of men.

Kinnear has a cerebral connection with the lines, he understands them and delivers them with his usual crisp diction and cadence, but there’s no choice about the kind of Macbeth he wants to be, no sense of a man cruelly battered by fate or setting out on a winding and uncharted path to destruction. There’s no sense of inevitability to his action and while there is a hint early on that this Macbeth relishes the idea of murdering his friend long before he talks to his wife, there is no clear depiction of the anguish, guilt and growing delusion of a man haunted by his earlier actions.

Kinnear just doesn’t have a point of view on his character and as the play wears on it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in his actions. He is an accomplished actor, but there’s something about this role that doesn’t sit right, he’s just not finding the layers of complexity or danger that drive Macbeth to greater and greater extremes. It’s sad to say that you just don’t believe him, whether he’s clutching for invisible daggers or fighting to the death with McDuff, it doesn’t feel credible.

By contrast, Anne-Marie Duff’s restrained and nervy Lady Macbeth towers over the production, and while she’s given very little to work against, Duff brings a desperation to her from the start, clearly suggesting a woman who’s taken all she can and grasps a chance to escape the mire with tear-stained joy.

Her agitated state is a characteristic that Duff sews through the performance, and even when Lady Macbeth must act decisively to cover-up her husband’s mistakes, her moments of courage come from a place of fear rather than evil, which makes her descent into madness credible. There’s little sense of who they are as a couple and their tribulations prior to the start of the play, but Duff allows flickers of repulsion and determination to cross her face in the feast scene as the former connection between man and wife is irrevocably broken.

There are some notable performances from the surrounding cast, including Patrick O’Kane who finds a burning fire in his angry and vengeful McDuff, and while the final confrontation with Macbeth does look a bit like Phil and Grant Mitchell having a barney, O’Kane channels McDuff’s sense of outraged nationhood and personal grief effectively. Stephen Boxer’s Duncan adds gravitas to the early scenes, speaking the verse with a regality that suggests respect despite his inability to act as a military leader.

The interpretation of the witches makes each one slightly different as they shriek their predictions like eerie sirens, but while Beatrice Scirocchi, Anna-Maria Nabirye and Hannah Hutch perform well, their role in the story feels uncertain, and the production has little to say about the nature and influence of superstition on human behaviour.

Norris’s direction keeps the pace moving and utilises the Olivier revolve well to bleed events into one another. And, if you’ve never seen Macbeth before then you may not notice the absence of purpose, because it is a perfectly watchable interpretation that on the surface relays the events of the story with clarity in an unusual new setting. The trouble is Macbeth can be so much more than this.

When done well, it can be a shocking, spine-tingling story that fascinates and repels in equal measure, that can send you home chilled to the bone by its vision of human darkness and the cycle of despair it sets in motion. The spectre of Justin Kurzel’s 2015 movie looms large over this production and while film offers different challenges, it made strong and interesting choices that brought psychological clarity to the story in a fresh and exciting way. All of this was then fed through every aspect of the film unifying performance, costume, setting and music to deliver a Macbeth of raw power and intensity. Yet, so rarely does this transfer to the stage.

Despite the early announcement of a tour in the autumn, and with no time to rethink before tomorrow’s Press Night, this Macbeth is a huge missed opportunity, which, despite its impressive cast and considerable resource, has little to say. Here at the National, as with many other attempts, the production vision lacks real purpose and fails to engage with the complex motivation of Macbeth himself, leaving him and us nowhere to go.

Macbeth is at the National Theatre until 23 June, tickets start at £15 and Macbeth is part of the Friday Rush scheme. Macbeth will be broadcast via NT Live on 10 May, and a UK and Ireland tour will begin in September with a cast to be confirmed. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturacap1

Charles I: King and Collector – Royal Academy

Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath (Frick Collection)

One of the many ways we can shape our history is to see it as a continual battle between democracy and kingship in all its forms, that has played out across the centuries. The Bridge Theatre’s brilliant revival of Julius Caesar is a reminder that these debates have raged for millennia and Nicholas Hytner’s fascinating production shows us the bloody consequences of one of the earliest clashes between state and individual ruler. And while today a low rumbling of republican sentiment remains, it somehow remains exactly that, low – our modern benign monarchy being inoffensive enough to suppress any serious attempts to tear it down.

One of the major reasons for this is because it all happened once before, the multitudinous consequences of which are still felt today. The execution of Charles I in January 1649 is one of the most momentous events in British history; never before or since had an English reigning monarch been tried and executed by their own people, although plenty had been deposed by court factions and invading claimants to the throne or mysteriously ‘disappeared’. Now, more than 450 years later it’s difficult to understand the wide-ranging effect Charles’s execution had – a monarch who he and most others believed was divinely appointed by, and only answerable to, God. As the Royal Academy’s brilliant new exhibition demonstrates that crucial axe blow had one little-known consequence, it created the modern art market.

Forget elaborate heists and the occasional desecration, arguably the republican fire-sale that followed Charles’s death is one of the greatest art crimes in history. It broke-up probably the finest collection of early-modern and renaissance art of the era, selling much of it cheaply to the highest bidder. It was a brash, barbarous and unforgiving act that stripped the Royal Collection and meant that some of today’s most valuable paintings were quickly snapped-up by the courts of Europe or private collectors. Through painstaking research and lots of diplomacy, the Royal Academy has reunited much of this work for the first time in over four centuries in its big spring show Charles I: King and Collector.

As you enter the first gallery to be stared at by some of the leading artists and creatives of the day, including Charles himself, there is an overwhelming sense of the significance of what you’re about to see. The RA, of course, has produced some of the most remarkable shows of the last 10 years including David Hockney: A Bigger Picture in 2012 and Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse in 2016. But there is an extra magic in this new exhibition which continually presses upon you; it is a rare and probably never to be repeated chance to see a collection of paintings, bronzes, busts, drawings and miniatures that no one has seen together for at least 450 years, or, given the distribution of the artefacts around the various royal palaces in the seventeenth-century, has never been seen in one suite of rooms by anyone before, not even Charles himself.

As you gaze at the stunning three-sided portrait of him by Anthony van Dyck painted in 1635-36, which dominates the first room, you see a man with many aspects to his character; not only a terrible political decision-maker and failed King, but a devoted family man whose wife and children appear repeatedly in the works on show, as well as a second son who was never meant to rule at all, a keenly religious sovereign, and a man with cultivated and judicious artistic sensitivities. All of this complexity is reflected in the rooms that follow, the shear amount of work on display demonstrating not only a quite pronounced taste in the art Charles acquired – or at the very least the sense to listen to advisers on what to buy – but an understanding of both traditional and emerging forms of artistic expression, purchasing classic pieces from the previous century, as well as supporting emerging talent in the newly commissioned artists within his own court.

And this is where it all begins, with the ream of famous names that created work for Charles in one of the greatest periods of artistic patronage. Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck are just two of the famous names to have worked for Charles, ensuring their place in art history by significantly changing the nature of expression and the psychological representation of their subjects as they did it.  As well as self-portraits of both men, the first gallery also sets out the key players including Charles’s friend the Duke of Buckingham captured as a mythological hero on horseback by Rubens in 1625, the year of the young King’s accession, and his Queen Henrietta Maria, depicted by van Dyck in one of his finest works in 1633 (Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson), who sought exile in France with her children in the midst of the Civil War, but herself amassed a fine collection of work showcased later in the exhibition.

A Witch Riding a Goat Backwards (Adam Elsheimer)As you wander round, as well as the images and stories shown in the painting, their own future life is detailed in the explanatory signs, with every plaque giving a clear indication of where the painting ended up – ranging from gallery collections in Europe such as the Louvre to America’s National Gallery of Art in Washington and Frick Collection in New York. Most fascinating is the price paid for it during the bargain sale of the early 1650s which in essence created the art market today, adding what is essentially arbitrary value to each piece, taking what anyone would pay for it. While one of Titian’s masterpieces went for £800 (c. £60,000), some pieces went for as little as £4 or £5 (c. £300 or c.£380 today) including a fantastic tiny image of A Witch Riding a Goat Backwards from c.1596-98 by Adam Elsheimer which is worth £5 of anyone’s money. And most interesting to note is how many of these objects have ended up back in British collections, repurchased in the ensuing centuries and often the property of the Queen, making this again a rare chance to see objects from the current Royal Collection, while at least three of the paintings were paid to the state in lieu of tax owed by some strapped aristocrat.

Most impressive of these is a room dedicated to the The Triumph of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna created between 1485 and 1506 across 9 separately created panels representing one celebratory event. These huge canvases, paled by the years, each depict one aspect of the event, including the march of the elephants, a collection of musicians and some of the purloined treasures from Caesar’s conquests paraded for the Roman people. As with much art in this period, the people look rather more medieval than classically Roman, but the detail and sense of chaos in Mantegna’s images are astounding. He captures the verve and excitement of the Triumph, building to the final piece showing Caesar himself with winged lackey holding a laurel wreath over his head – but crucially with face turned away to remind him of his mortality.

There are plenty of religious and mythological subjects on hand, not least in the paintings Charles owned by Titian, and in sections dedicated to ‘The Northern Renaissance’ and ‘The Italian Renaissance’ suggesting how meaningful these subjects were to the British royal family at the time. And Titian fans will be delighted to see plenty of his work on display, including a characterful portrait of Charles V painted in 1533, the depiction of Jesus convincing two disciples of his resurrection in The Supper at Emmaus from 1534 and the striking The Allocution of Alfonso d’Avalos to His Troops painted in 1540-41, one of the many pictures full of symbols of regality and power that are striking across Charles’s collection.

There are royal family portraits in abundance as well, most notably in a room dedicated largely to van Dyck’s images of Charles, Henrietta Maria and their children, deliberately depicting a stable, loving family with Charles at its head. The Great Peece from 1632 show the family with two of their children in the foreground with Westminster depicted behind. Intended to suggest the King’s dominion over Parliament, it’s sadly foreboding seen from this side of the execution. Equally laden with meaning is the rather charming Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath painted by van Dyck in 1632 as a celebration of a victory, with the Queen handing her husband a symbol of peace in return. It’s an intimate but still stately image as Henrietta Maria gazes openly at the viewer, while its style predicates the couples-portraiture of the eighteenth-century. There’s also some rarely-seen delicate Holbein drawings from The Royal Collection as well as miniatures of Charles’s antecedents including his elder brother Henry who died before ascending the throne.

Equestrian Portrait of Charles IThese are bolstered by the centrepiece of the exhibition, a central chamber filled with glorious portraits of Charles himself, each laden with regal and heraldic symbolism but filled by the sad-eyed stare of the man never raised to rule. Now in the Louvre, van Dycke’s Charles I in the Hunting Field from 1636 shows the King at the height of his Personal Rule (where he dismissed Parliament for more than a decade) looking imperious and fashionable in a country scene. Opposite this is Charles I with M. de St Antoine painted in 1633 depicting the monarch riding through a triumphal arch on horseback, shown as every inch the chivalric warrior King. Best of all, borrowed from its usual home in the National Gallery, is one of my favourite paintings, the Equestrian Portrait of Charles I from 1636-37 which is laden with heraldic meaning and, despite having a stunted horse’s head to ensure Charles looks more powerful, is one of the most imposing and magnificent depictions of Kingship ever painted.

Taking the best part of two hours to see and containing well over 100 works of art Charles I: King and Collector is an incredible achievement and a once in the whole of history chance to see one of the finest art collections ever created. The Royal Academy’s success is crowned by the astonishing and personal story of a tragic ruler whose disastrous political affairs have dominated modern understanding. Each picture gives us a 450-year story of how Charles’s treasured collection became fragmented and sold in the scorched earth days after the execution. More than this, however, the exhibition only serves to reinforce Charles’s importance in British history and, with statues, churches and images all over modern London, why the circumstances of his life, trial and execution continue to haunt us.

Charles I: King and Collector is at the Royal Academy until 15 April. Tickets are £18 (without donation) and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Frozen – Theatre Royal Haymarket

Frozen, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Illness or evil, what causes people to commit genuinely horrific crimes and, for relatives or friends, is it ever possible to really forgive? Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play Frozen taps into our continual fascination with crime, particular with gruesome murder cases, and in writing this story about a grieving mother, criminal psychologist and a paedophilic serial killer, Lavery was the fore-runner for popular culture’s obsession with representing the darkest of human acts. The cosy murder mysteries cling on, but modern crime dramas can be a brutal experience; The Fall, Hard Sun, Luther, even the most recent Agatha Christie adaptations have been quite unforgiving. And it’s the villains that keep us watching.

Lavery’s play shuns physical brutality for a psychological examination of killer and relatives, but this is nonetheless an uncomfortable experience for an audience asked to understand both points of view without entirely, or exclusively, sympathising with either. Yet the play’s very existence also asks interesting questions about the way we view crime as a form of entertainment, seeing our professed shock and outrage at heinous acts as pantomimic reactions that are equal parts disbelief and enjoyment, a throw-back to the days of public execution, the filthier the crime and the more heavy-handed the punishment, the greater the frenzy to know every detail.

In understanding this insalubrious aspect of human behaviour, Lavery makes the audience awkwardly complicit in her story at the very moment they are rustling their sweet-papers and nursing interval drinks. And there is something unnerving, even warped, about the idea of people snacking away while watching an unfolding story of unrepentant, murderous paedophilia and the struggle of two very different women to understand how and why someone would kill a child. So, Frozen, perhaps unintentionally, also makes you wonder what’s wrong with all of us, that we can remain emotionally distant yet glued to cases like these, morally repulsed yet still able to finish our bag of Sherbet Lemons.

10-year-old Rhona is abducted on her way to her grandmother’s house, taken by creepy killer Ralph as a relief from the pain of his latest weird tattoo. As several other bodies are discovered Ralph is sent to prison where years later he meets academic psychiatrist Agnetha who holds regularly sessions with Ralph to contribute to her research, arguing that criminal behaviour stems from their own childhood mistreatment. Running alongside this, Rhona’s mother Nancy spends years hoping her daughter will return, and when she finally learns the truth she feels an emptiness that leads to activism.

Based on the title, it’s safe to say that anyone expecting Frozen to be about ice princesses and comedy snowmen would be in for a rude awakening.  Jonathan Mumby’s production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket manages to fight the size of the auditorium to offer an intimate and revealing portrait of three strangers forever connected by one crime. Mumby has taken Lavery’s not entirely satisfactory drama and, worked with the designer to create an innovatively-staged and free-flowing show that seamlessly overlays a series of fairly short scenes, as character perspectives start to overlap.

Using video images of water-shapes, a crackling image of Rhona and depictions of the brain’s internal wiring, these are projected in quick succession onto frosted plastic flies that come together to create a series of rooms and locations in moments, taking the audience from Rhona’s childhood bedroom, preserved for decades by her grieving mother, to Ralph’s simple jail cell and to the King’s College London lecture hall where Agnetha delivers a presentation on her findings.

This latter section is particularly well-staged as Mumby utilises the full-width of the stage so Agnetha can walk from the lectern directly into the room where she’s “treating” Ralph, peppering the key points of her lecture with dramatized examples of their conversations. The staging offers a sense of all characters being hemmed-in to an extent by the circumstances of the crime, while reinforcing Lavery’s multi-meaning interpretation of being frozen which is applied to each of the character’s slightly differently.

And while it is a play where emotions rise and fall over more than twenty years, this interpretation purposefully limits the histrionics, taking a more forensic approach to unveiling each of the characters motivation and arc during this time. It utilises a narrative structure in which each character directly addresses the audience, unveiling their point of view in a succession of quick scenes. Yet, as affecting drama, it is only partially successful, and while it has moments of intensity, the central section isn’t able to fully overcome the slightly undernourished aspects of Lavery’s characterisation and the rapidly passing years between scenes seem to take Nancy in particular to a surprisingly matter-of-fact acceptance of her daughter’s murder without giving the audience or the actor the chance to fully explore the immediate impact of the abduction, meaning what follows for that character is a little diluted.

The trouble is, everyone loves a villain and it is Ralph who feels the most tangible of the characters, given an unsavoury reality in Jason Watkins superb performance that dominates the production. Right from the start, Ralph’s true nature is offered up, unabashed and almost proud of his sickening tastes that will make you squirm in your seat. After an early fruitless search of his rented flat, Watkins is shudder-inducing as he reveals the contents of his treasured suitcase to the audience which he has recovered from his garage.

What is so important about Watkin’s performance, is the eerie normality he brings to the role, making Ralph all too imaginable. There are slight physical tics like a gentle limp on one leg but subtly done to suggest his own complex backstory, and the intensity of the performance, the fascination with his sense of order, offers meat to Agnetha’s argument about his psychological damage. Watkins presents a character who is largely without remorse, wishing his tastes were tolerated, a fairly bland man just slightly off-centre which makes him genuinely chilling.

The production’s big draw is a rare stage appearance for Suranne Jones as mother Nancy who is the emotional heart of the story. As we follow the aftermath of the tragedy, Jones takes us from continued hope that Rhona is still alive – a state that last for some years – to her growing activism, speaking at events that support women enduring similar ordeals. All of this is managed very credibly, while utilising the approachable warmth that Jones brings to her celebrated screen performances.

The emotional heft is there too, particularly in a tender moment with her daughter’s remains, and alongside her domestic activities, Jones’s Nancy tries to hold together the rest of her family, including a crucial relationship with her other unseen daughter, and the audience is given a clear sense of the texture of Nancy’s domestic life and the wider effect of the crime. The speed of the passing years between scenes means that the immediate aftermath of the abduction is suddenly 5 or even 20 years later so Jones presents a woman trying to get on with things but set on a permanently different course than the one she intended.

Lavery’s deliberately scientific characterisation and fascination with her villain does keep you a little more distant than her grieving mother and damaged psychologist deserve, and while Nina Sosanya does a fine job as American-Scandinavian criminologist Agnetha, the character isn’t fully developed on the page. Given her own backstory of sudden panic attacks and an emotional entanglement that affects her work, Agnetha’s is little more than Lavery’s academic mouthpiece, a chance to display the detailed research into the criminal brain.

Sosanya is a fine actress nonetheless and keeps you engaged, particularly in the direct confrontations with Ralph, as she attempts to lure him out. Its set-up replicates but lacks the danger of the Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter conversations in The Silence of the Lambs, but Sosanya clearly charts the developing human affection Agnetha develops, and, having treated him as little more than a specimen in the beginning, she starts to appreciate the contribution to her work, as well as pity for the damage inflicted on him in childhood.

Frozen is a complex play that asks the viewer to detest the actions of the paedophilic murderer while equally attempting to understand them. There is a conversation about illness versus evil that runs through the show, and, while it makes a case for the former it isn’t supported by any suggestion of what society should do about this other than forgive the perpetrators. The individual narrative structure doesn’t surprise you, and clearly builds to character cross-overs with Nancy, Agnetha and Ralph rather inevitably appearing in each other’s stories.

There are comparisons to be made with Jennifer Haley’s The Nether which opened at the Royal Court in 2014 before transferring to the Duke of York’s the next year. Dealing with a similar topic but updated to online predators, The Nether was a challenging watch that made you feel sullied as you left the theatre. Frozen doesn’t quite have the same overwhelming effect, and while it effectively grapples with dark themes, its more clinical approach wants the audience to think about the cause of these behaviours and the possibility of forgiveness. Well performed and interestingly staged, Frozen’s most important effect is in reflecting society’s unhealthy obsession with serious crime, making us complicit in its presentation as entertainment.

Frozen is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 24 April with tickets from £10 for restricted view seats. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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