Monthly Archives: June 2014

Bring Up the Bodies – Aldwych Theatre

Did she really do it? It’s one of great unknowns of history and has been debated for hundreds of years – did Anne Boleyn really conduct a series of adulterous affairs right under the nose of Henry VIII, or were charges trumped up to smooth the King’s path to marriage number 3? Bring Up the Bodies, based on the second of Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell, deals with the period leading up to Anne’s fall and the extent to which Cromwell is implicated in designing her death.

As with last week’s Wolf Hall review, I want to think about this as a standalone play and how effectively these events have been dramatised. It’s 1535, Henry after years of intrigue has finally married Anne Boleyn and the cracks are beginning to show. Thus far the relationship has cost him several members of his inner-circle including executed counsellors Wolsey and Thomas More, and has caused a scandal in Christendom, severing England from the Church of Rome.

This adaption feels considerably more successful than Wolf Hall; partly because there is a tighter narrative focus, covering just Anne’s final year, and better emphasising the drama and danger of the period. Despite its three hour run-time, it continues to engage the audience, especially in the second act when Anne and her supposed lovers are questioned, tried and dispatched. Four of the accused were allocated a corner of the stage, each visited by Cromwell in turn giving Ben Miles a chance to exhibit Master Secretary’s persuasive, and threatening, techniques. As with Wolf Hall it is Miles who excels in this production, conveying the skill of man moving between factions, guiding the King into prudent decisions and intimidating others to conform. As with Mantel’s character, it’s a rich performance subtly implying the variety of Cromwell’s early life experiences – blacksmith, mercenary, and lawyer – bringing them to bear with considerable effect in Henry’s service. And, at around five and half hours of almost continual stage presence across both productions, it really is a remarkable achievement.

Most of the cast are also pretty good; Nathanial Parker’s padded Henry is slightly buffoonish and not nearly as clever as his key advisor, but shows bursts of Henry’s anger and regret. Lydia Leonard’s Anne is haughty and cruel, oblivious to what’s going on around her and not really humbled by her arrest. Unlike recent interpretations there’s no sympathy for Anne here which is fine given evidence of her guilt or innocence is inconclusive, but there is a lack of chemistry with Henry which makes the relationship between them slightly unbelievable.

It is a gripping and exciting production which takes some bold decisions with its staging, particularly the reliance on lighting rather than set to depict changes of location, time and season, which is managed as well as I have ever seen it. There is a live orchestra helping to underscore the mood, and echoed sound is used for the ghost-device when Cromwell is visited by the spirits of Wolsey and Thomas More – a bit cheesy but it helps to give voice to some of Cromwell’s inner thoughts and reiterates Cromwell’s core motivation which is to revenge himself on those who destroyed Wolsey.

On the whole then, I think Bring Up the Bodies works better as a standalone play than Wolf Hall. Although I was glad to see them both, if you’re short of time or put off by the ticket prices, then maybe just see part two. The people next to me in the theatre hadn’t seen Wolf Hall but thoroughly enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies, so little pre-knowledge is required to enjoy it.

So did she do it? Well, this production goes against some recent scholarship and the TV show that suggest the innocent Anne was certainly framed by Henry. Here instead we get something much more complex, the rumours of her lifestyle abound long before the breach with Henry takes place, and the action is subtly laced with references to inappropriate activities. It is a while before Cromwell puts these throw-away comments together to construct a case against her and we see his political astuteness in reasoning away the number of men involved in order to make Henry look better in the eyes of Europe. It is clear that the men are almost certainly innocent, but Anne herself is guilty of something. Like a 20s mobster prosecuted for tax evasion, Anne is rightly condemned but maybe not for the crime she actually committed.  If nothing else these plays and Mantel’s excellent novels reinforce how fascinated we are by the Tudor Court and the debate that still surrounds history’s most famous mistress.

Bring Up the Bodies is at the Aldwych Theatre until 6th October. Tickets start at £11 from Ticketmaster.

Wolf Hall – Aldwych Theatre

Who’s your favourite King? Chances are it is Henry VIII; more than 500 years since his accession Britons remain fascinated by his rule. His time seems to sit on the cusp of medieval and modern, in the space of 40 years transforming the systems around him – breaking with Rome, dissolving the monasteries and appropriating their funds, creating a new church and making himself head of it, so bringing religious schism to the heart of government. His personal life too is a dramatist’s dream; one wife for nearly 25 years followed by five others in half that time, divorces, executions, changing lines of succession and the disposal of faithful servants when they had served their purpose. Not to mention his life-long quest to subdue the French which was guaranteed to win him a few fans. Monstrous dictator or lonely man looking for love and a male heir, Henry’s reign has proved one of the most exciting and pivotal in our history.

The RSC is then the latest in a long line of people looking to find new meaning in The Tudor era in their adaptation of Wolf Hall, based on the Booker Prize winning and Damehood earning novel by Hilary Mantel. This is showing in repertoire with Bring Up the Bodies from Mantel’s second book in the yet incomplete trilogy about Henry’s political ‘fixer’ Thomas Cromwell. All the reviews of the London production have treated the two plays as one but I was interested in seeing to what extent each is an interesting piece of theatre in its own right, and I deliberately wrote this review before seeing part two.

Wolf Hall covers a period of 10-13 years (depending on the sources you look at) from Henry first meeting Anne Boleyn to the death of Thomas More, taking in the divorce of Catherine of Aragon, birth of Elizabeth I, fall of Wolsey and growth of Protestantism. To some extent these massive events deliberately fade into the background as we see Cromwell’s political rise to power through interaction with other members of the court. It is his methods that are examined rather than the end result which, though interesting, can feel like too light a touch at times. Ben Miles’s Cromwell is excellent at conveying the intelligence, manoeuvrability and, when necessary, the danger of the man a King relied on. This performance anchors the whole play, nicely bringing out Cromwell’s sometimes painful personal feelings and how well he had to hide them to perform his role. The scenes depicting his various methods of coercion with the King and with prisoners are particularly impressive.

Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII is a softer interpretation than we often see; largely a jovial figure, probably not that clever and easily persuadable, but as ‘the lion’ begins to realise his power the threats and anger emerge when pushed to extremes. Lydia Leonard’s Anne Boleyn is not the devious flirt of recent adaptations but super-smart and openly arrogant, orchestrating the King’s conversion to the new religion. Some of the other characters are less well drawn however – Henry’s boys club of rowdy friends, Suffolk and Norfolk, are little more than noisy hooligans snapping at Cromwell’s low birth. It doesn’t properly imply the threat that this new man posed to the traditional elites, nor do they seem likely companions for the more sedate interpretation of Henry that we see. It was also nice to see a cameo from Barbara Windsor as Mary Boleyn… oh no, sorry, I’ve checked my programme and it was actually Olivia Darnley doing a fine impression of everyone’s favourite landlady in her Carry On days.

It’s well staged with almost no props meaning the scene changes happen in an instant with a change of lighting which helps to keep a brisk pace. But while more than a decade of events hurtles by in scene after scene, the second half does feel leg-crampingly long. Once Henry married Anne the audience began to get restless and for those who hadn’t read the book, it wasn’t clear where the cut-off point would be. The most disappointing part was the lack of fear in the Tudor court and the very difficult climate in which these events took place. At no time was Henry certain a divorce would be granted and he endured years of evasion from the Vatican before even contemplating his own solution. Factions at court are hinted at, but they don’t imply the danger they could cause, and the very real possibility of gruesome execution for those who failed to deliver what the King wanted. Cromwell was adept at managing this but he would have known and feared the risks.

All in all, Wolf Hall is ok as a stand-alone play and the less knowledge of Tudor history you have the better – knowing almost none at all, the lady in the next seat enjoyed it more than I did. Mocked as I may be for this, it’s also difficult to shake-off a comparison with The Tudors series which dealt with a similar period over 14 or 15 episodes. While here I enjoyed the varied approach to the core players, some of the others just didn’t ring as true as they did in the novel or in the TV version – it’s hard to beat Sam Neil’s incredible Cardinal Wolsey or Jeremy Northam’s Thomas More. I suspect that Bring Up the Bodies will make this feel more complete, dealing with Anne’s trial and execution which offers a tighter narrative structure. So in true soap opera style, tune in next week to find out….

Wolf Hall is at the Aldwych Theatre until 4 October. Tickets start at £11 which were available on the Ticketmaster website.

The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier – Barbican

There are many things you might expect from an exhibition of Jean-Paul Gaultier clothing – Breton stripes, tartan, conical-shaped underwear – being greeted by a life-sized dummy with the projected face and voice of the man himself is probably not one of them. Yet this is one of the many innovations that make this new exhibition at the Barbican both bold and exciting. Covering 40 years of design from his time with the French fashion houses including a stint as Creative Director of Hermes, through the Eurotrash years, to the launch of his own fashion label in 1997, this thematically arranged collection, charts the development of Gaultier’s distinct and iconic style.

The first gallery is devoted to the Breton stripe and the various ways Gaultier has incorporated it into men and women’s fashion, from nautical association with bell bottom trousers to long evening dresses. All the dummies in this room have faces which move, talk and sing – giving more interesting presentation to clothes designed for real people. The expressive mannequins are both a dynamic way to present what could be a lifeless display of clothing, and somewhat creepy at the same time.

The next room showcases Gaultier’s work inspired by British street culture, and in particular the punk movement of the late 1970s / early 1980s. It is awash with kilts, denim, camouflage materials and studs with some repurposed as elegant ball gowns which make for an interesting contrast. There’s also a revolving cat-walk that dominates the room, allowing you to sit and watch the clothes pass by as though you were in the front row. The mechanics are little wobbly but you get the idea.

For some, the highlight will be the clothes designed for celebrities and these are in abundance –including Madonna, Kylie, Dita Von Teese, Lily Cole and Kate Moss. The Barbican always likes to give you a varied experience and I really like the way they have curated these rooms, with the clothes in the centre and high quality photography of said star wearing the outfit on the wall nearby. You’d be surprised how many fashion exhibitions fail to do this when it adds such great context to the bit of fabric you’re staring at. There’s some incredible Miles Aldridge prints in the first room, emphasising Gaultier’s collaboration with numerous photographers, models and artists. Upstairs, there’s also a number of film costumes which Gaultier designed such as The Fifth Element all displayed alongside video clips of them in action.

One of the things I really like about the Barbican is that a gallery visit is always good value and a lot of thought clearly goes into planning the best experience for the visitor. Information is well supplied, although in this case an exhibition guide is only available by app, with plenty of signs explaining the themes, as well as the individual pieces. Several of these tell you exactly how many hours the outfit took to create, a fascinating insight into the haute couture process – in some instances it was over a hundred hours and for the more stunning evening wear this topped 1000. Sometimes exhibited clothes can look a little warn close up, but here the workmanship and presumably a careful preservation process makes them look like new. The Barbican has also lavishly redesigned its grey concrete walls, adding plush velvet display cases and lighting to create an effect that enhances the clothes on display.

In addition to the clothes and a really good insight into the Gaultier aesthetic, you also get an interesting sense of how fashion ties into many other cultural forms, including music, film and photography. He’s worked with some of the world’s most famous people and, rather like the David Bailey retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, this is a rare chance to see the culmination of forty years of collaboration and impact. Even better, the Barbican, unlike several other galleries, offers a range of ticket prices, some for less than £10, which will help to engage new audiences for which they should be applauded! The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier is certainly very stripy and this good value exhibition is a great place to meet the man himself, even if it is just a projected version.

The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is at the Barbican until 25 August. Tickets are £14.50 as standard, with variously priced concessions including under £10 for students and schools.

A Small Family Business – National Theatre

What are your morals worth? How much would someone have to pay you to compromise your principles and are you sure you’re so incorruptible? Jack McCracken is a law-abiding citizen who leaves the firm he works for to join his wife’s family business which manufactures furniture. The owner/father-in-law has discovered an Italian rival is selling exactly the same products so Jack’s first task is to identify and plug the leak. Meanwhile his teenage daughter has been followed home by a private investigator working for a local store where she was caught shoplifting.

Mr Hough has already heard that the family business has a problem, and comes with a deal prepared – he’ll forget the shoplifting charge if he is given the job of investigating the leak. But then Jack starts to uncover what’s really been going on at the firm and needs to halt the investigation before the full extent of their crimes is revealed. But that turns out to be considerably more difficult than he imagines. Trying to neutralise the network of deceit his relatives have created and make the firm legitimate may just lead to his own corruption.

This isn’t a typical Ayckbourn comedy focusing far more on the tight plot than his usual character-driven stuff. Most often you see groups of individuals drawn together for an occasion – Christmas, a village fete, choir or neighbourhood watch meeting – which of itself is rather immaterial, but tensions are drawn out through the human interaction. Ayckbourn characters are usually lonely and this is amplified by being in a group situation. In A Small Family Business we are presented with some fairly single-dimensional characters but with a strong story that keeps the action, and the farce, flowing.

Most of the acting is pretty good here, Nigel Lindsay (seen most recently in the RSC’s triumphant Richard II) does a very good job as the bewildered Jack, frantically trying to do the best for his family whilst feeling his morality compromising as he becomes mired in the business. The two particularly notable performances come from Niky Wardley as Anita, Jack’s sister in law and Ayckbourn regular Matthew Cottle as the seedily sinister Mr Hough. Anita is the real brains behind the organisation, calling the shots with exasperated ease, and hilariously speaking Italian with a cockney accent. Cottle’s Hough is a genuinely chilling and social awkward figure, a familiar Ayckbourn ‘little man’ who milks his moment of power to the utmost.

There’s only one thing really wrong with all of this and that’s the set. It’s a beautifully designed terraced house seen in cross-section, rather like a doll’s house, and meant to represent the generic build of suburbia. But it’s used as the setting for several different homes which just doesn’t really work. For a lengthy first scene the audience understands it to be Jack’s home; then he exits and returns through the front door but now it’s somewhere else. I can see for reasons of flow and simplicity why the designer has chosen to do this but it leaves no room for these multiple homes to represent the personalities of their owners. Audiences are smart enough to keep track but I felt this idea stretched credulity too far in the final section when the one ‘house’ is used for simultaneous scenes taking place in several different buildings.

The stage revolves but all we see is the front of the house, again skilfully created, but it’s only used at the beginning and the interval, doubling as a curtain. At best it’s a waste of half a stage and at worst an expensive screensaver. Until recently, right next door in the Lyttleton, A Taste of Honey used almost exactly the same cross-section design so this seems pretty lazy if you’d seen both productions and surprisingly poor planning by the National, especially as this set hasn’t really enhanced the play.

Having said that, this is an enjoyable production of a different kind of Ayckbourn play with lots of interesting insights into the nature of human corruption and how easily even the most honest man can be led astray. The ticket prices are pretty high with most of the cheaper seats sold to members as usual – it’s a shame the National is beginning to price-out casual theatre-goers. This is dark and funny production is worth seeing, but if the prices are putting you off maybe catch the NT-Live cinema broadcast this week on Thursday12 June instead.

A Small Family Business is at the National Theatre until 27August. Tickets start from £15 (apparently). The NT Live cinema broadcast is on 12 June at 7pm.

Another Country – Trafalgar Studios

The story of the Cambridge Five is one of the most absorbing tales of the twentieth-century. The scale of their treachery, betraying British secrets to Russia from the 1930s until the 1960s is almost impressive, especially given their senior placements in the Secret Intelligence Sevice (MI6), Foreign Office and even the Queen’s Household. Historians today claim that mentioning Kim Philby’s name in the secret services still elicits outrage and disgust for a man who not only betrayed his country, but also those in the intelligence community who considered him a friend. Why men who enjoyed every privilege, from Eton to Cambridge to ‘Establishment’ jobs, sided with Russia has fascinated us since the early 1950s when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected, followed by Philby himself in 1963.

Julian Mitchell’s 1981 play ‘Another Country’ imagines the 1930s public schooldays of Guy Burgess (here known as Guy Bennett) and supposes the root of his decision to spy lie in the semi-petty politics of an all-boys boarding school. Written shortly after Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was unveiled as the fifth man in the Cambridge spy-ring, the play is concerned with how the betrayal of friends on a small scale may sow the seed of something considerably more serious in later years. It opens with the suicide of a young student after being caught in a compromising position with another boy and follows the story of Bennett, an openly homosexual pupil, and his classmate Judd, a Marxist.

This is a pitiless Lord of the Flies society in which older boys manage the behaviour of their houses, dolling out brutal punishments for transgressions. Only one adult appears in the entire play, a visiting liberal uncle, a charismatic cameo from Julia Wadham, who has tea with the boys and becomes the moral centrepiece of this little society, arguing that there can be no certainty, and doubt should be the basis of all action. However, the boys running the school act with absolute moral certainty that they have the right to impose their will through the appointment of prefects and entry into the elite invitation-only 22 group. The absence of adult guidance only serves to reinforce the idea that each generation sends it boys into the ‘Establishment’ to run the country, and by using some indefinable criteria exclude those who don’t quite fit.

Bennett is well liked and, although indiscrete about his many assignations, is very much part of the ruling elite of the school. His counterpart Judd meanwhile remains a self-determined outsider until his support is needed and both boys are welcomed then rebuffed by those willing to go to any lengths to maintain the shape of their little world. Mitchell suggests it is this notion of friendly betrayal, of being jollied along and cast aside even by those he’s been close to that is the reason Bennett (aka Burgess) betrayed his country – revenge against those who used him.

Rob Callender is very good as Guy Bennett, suggesting the exuberance and self-assurance that Burgess was later known for. It’s a nuanced performance too capturing the fears and callowness of young men who think they have figured-out the world, and surprised when it comes tumbling down. Will Attenborough’s Tommy Judd is a nice contrast, calm and certain of his Communist convictions, but his loftiness is challenged by a need to participate in the School’s politicking.  Mention should also be made of Mark Quartley as Barclay, the Head of House who reaches breaking point, unable to forgive himself for the suicide that opens the play.

It’s strange that the publicity team advertise it as the play that launched Kenneth Branagh and Rupert Everett considering neither of them appears here – I can’t imagine the Barbican promoting their forthcoming Hamlet as previously starring David Tennant, Rory Kinnear and Jude Law! It’s hardly fair to the pretty good set of young actors in this version who may have lengthy careers ahead of them. Whether this play sheds light on the motivation of a key member of the Cambridge Five is interesting to debate, but it’s certainly unabashed in its exploration of public school cruelty in the 1930s. As a microcosm of the Establishment many of its pupils became part of, is it possible to understand why a few chose espionage and betrayal instead?

Another Country runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 21June. Ticket prices start from £19.50, although Last Minute had them from £16 when I booked.

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