Monthly Archives: August 2018

Running Wilde: How to Manage a Theatre Season

Oscar Wilde Season - An Ideal Husband

As Classic Spring’s year-long Oscar Wilde season comes to a close, its timely to reflect on what it has achieved. Every theatre describes its forthcoming programme as a season, loosely tying together the varied collection of plays it will present in a 4-6 month period, releasing tickets for them all simultaneously. Here, though, a season refers to the external take-over of a theatre building by a Company formed specifically around a particular individual or to celebrate the work of one writer – as the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and Classic Spring have done. Aside from its commercial purpose to attract as many patrons as possible, has London’s second major theatre season in three years really added anything to our perception of Oscar Wilde and his work?

This time last year Dominic Dromgoole’s newly-formed Company was preparing for its opening show – A Woman of No Importance – and promising that the programme would reposition Wilde in the theatre landscape, allowing us to view his writing and contribution with fresh eyes. With the rather lacklustre and ill-conceived version of The Importance of Being Earnest showered with largely 2* reviews and acres of disappointment, has Dromgoole failed where Branagh arguably succeeded? And what should a successful theatre season actually look like?

  • Play Selection is Crucial

With only four or five available spots each limited to an 8-10 week run, there are three important criteria for deciding which productions to include in the season. First is artistic value, the second commercial viability and the third variety. Classic Spring’s choices, including the two plays mentioned above along with Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband easily demonstrated the value of Wilde’s work, presenting his best-loved plays which guaranteed a healthy box-office return. Rarely off stage, Wilde has audiences flocking to the West End most years, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser each time.

Yet, with a season dedicated to one writer, predominantly working in one genre, variety is more difficult to achieve through the selection of work – how the forthcoming Pinter season manages this will be an interesting point of comparison. Branagh’s season could more easily offer a broad selection just by having a much wider pool of possible material, but it shrewdly combined the classics with modern drama, comedy and tragedy across the run. Yet, both seasons within their own confines gave dedicated audiences the chance to see work they would know well alongside more unusual or less-frequently performed pieces. Branagh’s curveball was the hilarious farce The Painkiller, in which our noble knight dropped his trousers, while Classic Spring cleverly opened with the lesser-performed A Woman of No Importance which offered the chance to see the more serious and emotional side of Wilde beneath the polished veneer and witty epigrams.

  • Vary the Presentation

Play selection might offer a Company all kinds of opportunities to present different types of production from different eras, but variety in staging and design can add considerably to arguments about the ongoing relevance of particular writers and their ability to draw on the consistent human emotions and behaviours that defy historical era. While each play is a standalone piece true to the purpose of the writer, a season should think more broadly about the visual effect it wants to create to offer variation and possibly even innovation for the repeat customer – it will be interesting to see the approach taken to setting and tone by the forthcoming Pinter season where up to four separate short plays will be presented on the same night.

Branagh’s season managed this well, often using the same design team across several plays, and presented five very different but thematically unified worlds to the audience. Running in repertory, viewers were taken from the magical pseudo-nineteenth-century kingdom of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale to the chaotic 1950s touring theatre of Harlequinade, with its faux medieval references in the costumes. The Painkiller, set in a Boutique Hotel, was a modern split screen with a sharp-suited assassin, while Romeo and Juliet referenced the monochrome glamour of 1960s La Dolce Vita Italy, before faded 1950s working-class Britain became the backdrop to The Entertainer. Each play was unique and individually designed to take the audience back and forth in time, but the human tragedy and delusion at the heart of every piece was always crystal clear, providing a unity across the work.

By contrast, the Wilde season seemed frustratingly unadventurous, despite different directors and designers separately taking charge of the four plays. Together they produced a remarkably unvarying and one-note portrayal of late nineteenth-century grandeur. Audiences have a passion for traditional Wilde, so it would be perfectly understandable that two or even three of the shows would want to retain their period-specific focus, but the hope that at least one would take a more creative path was soon dashed.

Of all the work presented in this season, An Ideal Husband most lends itself to taking a more unusual approach to characters and scenarios that more obviously reference the modern day. Most audience members may not regularly dine with the aristocracy, but politicians with dark secrets about the origins of their power being blackmailed by unscrupulous outsiders with plenty to gain is a recognisable and relatable construct. It becomes even more prescient when we consider that the inflexibility of the black and white morale code that Wilde toys with through the character of Gertrude, and which now reflects our Post-World War cultural love-affair with the anti-hero where a bad deed done for the right reason is forgivable and even desirably human.

Traditionalists will argue that to see Wilde performed well is always welcome, and An Ideal Husband was a particular highlight, but what is a season for if not to offer a creative opportunity to see the work afresh. One key way to do that is through the setting, imagining why the play has survived so well and what it has to say – Wilde’s writing is more than a string of funny lines, there is something about the fundamental human condition that runs through his work, which the repetitive framing failed to satisfactorily draw out.

  • Have a Point of View and a Grand Finale

Knowing what you want audiences to take-away from the work is the next key criteria, and strongly relates to the arguments above. As a collective body of work, what is it that the Company wants to say about the writer or the specific collection of plays that they have chosen to present? Or is the whole enterprise a cynical money-making scheme? Classic Spring’s original intent was to celebrate ‘proscenium playwrights’, rediscovering their ‘original brilliant wit and bold social critique,’ and across the four plays it is the former that has been the focus.

Emphasising the ways in which the work ‘still speak to us piercingly and profoundly today’ has been less clear, and after the emotionalism of A Woman of No Importance and the allusions we drew for ourselves in An Ideal Husband the productions themselves haven’t radically repositioned Wilde as a political commentator or collectively highlighted the foibles of social expectation, status and behaviour that could have drawn the four shows together. We enjoyed some of them as individual productions, but with a changing cast, director and designer they all felt independent of one another, and we haven’t learnt anything new from them as a collective experience.

The Wilde season built-up to The Importance of Being Earnest, rightly saving its most famous piece for the big finish. The end of the season is the opportunity to draw all of the strands together in the one production that visualises the season’s original themes, sending audiences away with a clear sense of its purpose and eager to see what the Company does next. Alas, The Importance of Being Earnest was a damp-squib, easily the worst of the set, an overly-forced disappointment receiving a heap of poor reviews. With little that was truly remarkable or insightful, where Classic Spring goes from here is hard to say.

By contrast, the Branagh season generate its own momentum, taking risks in the choice of production and style, while drawing the strands together in a loose but considered way. Thematically it focused on the theatrical life and particularly a desperation and delusion that prevented characters seeing their situations or themselves as they really are. From the faded starlets of Harlequinade to the star-crossed lovers driven to despair by family rivalry, audiences were able to form a picture across the series, culminating in the ultimate portrait of stale desperation in The Entertainer. A theatre season has to be more than the sum of its parts, we can love the individual plays but, through staging or unusual show selection, it should develop connections and insights for an audience that didn’t exist before.

  • Venue and Casting

Finding the right space is often more about availability than design, but in choosing the Vaudeville Classic Spring added an extra dimension to the work, meeting one of their key purposes of the season to stage shows in the place the playwright created them. Along with the added frisson, the Vaudeville also works for audiences with good sight lines from most seats. The Garrick was more frustrating for Branagh fans with a significant curve in the upper levels that obscured half of the stage, while the stalls seating is insufficiently raked for viewing.

Both seasons attracted plenty of famous faces guaranteed to draw audiences with Freddie and Edward Fox, Eve Best, Sophie Thompson and well-loved comedian Jennifer Saunders embodying some of Oscar Wilde’s most well-loved creations. Arguably by retaining some continuity of cast and crew between shows, Branagh’s approach had a deeper purpose, offering a form of repertory training for emerging talent on and off-stage, while providing platforms for actors fresh from drama school to work alongside theatrical titans including Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Greta Scacchi, and Branagh himself, as well as up-and-coming actors including Lily James, Richard Madden, Jessie Buckley and Tom Bateman who had previously or would go on to work again with the notably loyal actor-director.

  • Critical Data

While the Critic no longer wields the make-or-break power they once held as audiences draw on a range of information when selecting a show, the reviews are still a valuable indicator of a production’s value in the wider landscape. Looking at the star ratings apportioned to each show in the Wilde and Branagh seasons by the leading publications is very revealing, and, in terms of average critical acclaim, The Branagh Theatre Company outperformed Classic Spring overall.

Looking at averages for The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Time Out, The Stage, WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub reveals:*

Season Averages

Only An Ideal Husband earned 3.5 stars or more, while three of Branagh’s shows achieved that. And despite a 5* outlier from Whatsonstage, The Importance of Being Earnest only received a damming 2.8 stars, Branagh’s lowest scoring show being Romeo and Juliet with 3.3 stars. The critics clearly found less to love in the Wilde season for some of the reasons mentioned above.

The dedicated theatre season is slowly becoming a notable and much-anticipated feature of West End scheduling, but running one is never as straightforward as it may seem. Putting on a series of shows loosely strung together has lessened the impact of the Wilde season, missing an opportunity to offer the promised new perspective. With a 6-month season dedicated to Harold Pinter about to begin over at the theatre named after him, Jamie Lloyd and his theatre company can learn some lessons from Classic Spring. With plenty of star names, rarely seen work and Lloyd’s particular touch, let’s hope London’s next big theatre season is one to remember.

The Classic Spring Oscar Wilde Season concludes with The Importance of Being Earnest until 20 October. The Pinter at the Pinter Season begins in September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

* The full data from the critics:

Critics Data

Key – Tm – The Times, Tl -The Telegraph, Gd – The Guardian, In – The Independent, St – The Stage, TO – Time Out, Wh – WhatsonStage, RH – The Reviews Hub

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From Stage to Screen: Allelujah! – Bridge Theatre

Allelujah - Bridge Theatre

70 years ago, the NHS came into being, and not too long after that the first medical dramas followed. The history of our free health service and the history of television almost go hand-in-hand. Medical soaps and dramas dominated the schedules for decades, until arguable crime replaced them as our favourite genre. A particular affinity with the screen, early examples like Doctor Kildare, General Hospital and Dr Finlay’s Case Book evolved into much-loved American dramas like ER and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as the invincible long-running shows Casualty, Doctors and Doc Martin – the world of doctors, nurses and patients is ever ripe for dramatic interpretation.

But that’s only the tip of the medical iceberg; during the lifespan of the NHS, a plethora of documentary series from 24 hours in A&E to Embarrassing Bodies have given us plenty of fly-on-the-wall access and real-life insight. Meanwhile film has also used the hospital as its location many times, and long before more recent American examples including Extreme Measures and Parkland, British movie depictions started with the gentle humour of Doctor in the House and its ensuing sequels, and the cheeky naughtiness of numerous Carry Ons (Nurse, Doctor, Again Doctor and Matron). Popular culture has, then, long reflected the intensity, silliness and political deprivation that has blighted the development of our free health service in the last 70 years.

Theatre though has paid relatively little regard to the medical services, and despite Nina Raine’s Tiger Country, last revived at the Hampstead Theatre in 2014, and The Globe’s Doctor Scroggy’s War set during the 1914-1918 conflict, few plays have used the hospital or doctor’s surgery as their primary focus. The doctor as a character turns-up all over the place, from Agatha Christie suspects to Patrick Marber lovers (in Closer), but their own environment has been strangely neglected by playmakers. So the duel promise of a new NHS-based play written by Alan Bennett – his first in six years – is interesting for many reasons, not least that it will receive its very own cinema transfer on 1 November, a medium that given the screen history of the NHS, may change our perception of the production.

Bennett is easily the biggest name to premiere a play during the Bridge Theatre’s first year of operation. Set in a tradition “cradle to grave” hospital, Allelujah! has quite a broad remit, tackling issues of individual patient care, hospital management, the closure and integration of smaller facilities and the politically sensitive cuts advocated by central Government. Bennett’s writing touches on so many issues that, understandably, his narrative frame becomes rather over-stretched so the forces that compel the core story become a little contorted.

But to what extent is this the consequence of its theatrical form, a place where conventions of drama create certain structural preconceptions about story and character? Seeing Bennett’s medical story on a screen may lend it an entirely new face, where the broad episodic structure of the writing and its impassioned personal versus the political plot may seem more at home among the serialised medical dramas seen every week on screen. Our leading playwrights are just as likely to be seen penning screen-dramas and forthcoming attractions include Mike Bartlett’s 6-part series Press in September set in a news agency and James Graham’s Brexit drama next spring. With so much crossover between stage and screen, seeing Bennett’s latest play in a specifically-commissioned cinema presentation after the run has officially ended feels like a logic step.

Facing closure, The Beth hospital remains a haven for geriatric patients who form a choir to liven-up their stay. When the father of a political aide is admitted, he cycles to the hospital to visit him one last time despite their estrangement. Unbeknown to the staff, Colin is responsible for the policy that will lead to the merger, and when a documentary crew arrive to film a fly-on-the-wall series everyone tries to be on their best behaviour. But with the lives of vulnerable patients in their hands, not all of the hospital staff are quite what they seem.

The three strands of Bennett’s play attempt to shine a broad comic light on our current health provision while making a rallying cry for its future protection. First, it examines the mixed approach to healthcare for the elderly and the value we place on long life versus quality of life, which is one of the most successful themes Bennett explores in Allelujah! Although some critics found the musical sequences a little jarring and designated too much room in an otherwise packed 2.5 hours of theatre, there is merit in them, reflecting the community spirit that smaller hospitals can generate and serving as a timely reminder that mentally, if not physically, these characters have rich emotional lives connecting them directly, through song, to the memories and emotions of their youth.

It is hardly a coincidence that La La Land has reinvigorated the fantasy song and dance sequence on screen, so Bennett draws on this to take his characters away from the mundane and beleaguered into an alternate reality and happier times. And, by limiting the major set-pieces, like La La Land, Bennett actively juxtaposes the everyday with the grand romance of the musical. In between the showcase numbers, many of the film’s scenes show Mia and Sebastian’s relationship played out in ordinary locations by two ordinary people looking for a break. If it’s good enough for Damien Chazelle, it’s good enough for Alan Bennett, and Allelujah! puts its choir in a bubble that separates them briefly from the reality of ill health and old age. These sequences, choreographed by Arlene Phillips, should make even more of an impact in a cinema where audiences are more used to the stylistic movie techniques and allusions that Bennett employs.

The second strand is a political one in which the controversial march of progress is measured against its personal impact. The depersonalisation of NHS services, the drive for efficiency savings, targets and reduction of overheads affects debate about the success of our current healthcare structure, with Whitehall notably divorced from the reality of caring for the sick. Bennett uses political aide Colin (Samuel Barnett) as a cipher for London, modernity and centrist control that ranks statistical success above the people being cared for.

Joe – a former miner – easily becomes one of Allelujah!’s most sympathetic characters, a kind and engaging creation whose complex relationship with his son, and fond memories of dancing in his youth which he recreates with Sister Gilchrist are played with considerable pathos. There is a really interesting dynamic between Joe (Jeff Rawle) and his son (Samuel Barnett) as their bedside meetings result in loaded silences and strained conversation, belying the genuine affection that they have for one another, and speaking volumes about the conventions of masculinity and pride that prevent a reconciliation. Bennett offers small hints at their background, at the local versus metropolitan world view that has driven them apart, but it’s an area that is frustratingly under-explored as the core drama evolves away from their meaningful interaction.

Bennett’s writing has always been at its best when showing the intimate contradictions of human relationships and personalities that can come across so well in screen close-ups. Comic on the surface and desperately sad or lonely underneath, this complicated connection between father and son should have been the main thrust of the story, driving the dramatic narrative with Joe becoming slowly more unwell as Colin’s merger policy takes effect, uniting the personal and the political in the way Bennett intends. Both actors suggest much of this, but the space to develop is reduced by Allelujah!’s third, and theatrically least successful, strand.

To prevent spoilers its impossible to describe this section as its occurrence is sudden and deliberately surprising, but it drags the show away from its original purpose, muddies the narrative and sets-up a central inconsistency just before the interval that is never satisfactorily resolved. Yet, this section will almost certainly play better on screen where the melodrama and overly-contrived nature of the storyline will have more in common with the commonplace life and death-jeopardy scenarios of most televised medical drama. In the kind of theatre that Bennett creates this feels more out of place than any amount of nostalgic musical sequences can ever do, leaving you unsure whether Bennett is campaigning to save smaller hospitals or revealing the abuse of power they facilitate.

Allelujah! may not be Bennett’s finest play but it has a lot going for it, not least the creation of a suite of characters that you want to know more about – it’s just a shame you never really do. From Gwen Taylor’s bolshie Lucille to Simon Williams’s Ambrose as a former English teacher reduce by age to Patricia England as Mavis the eccentric showgirl still determined to be beautiful. So many potentially fascinating lives are offered-up but never given a proper chance to link their wonderful backstories to the modern day in the way that, say, Follies managed so extraordinarily this year.

The 1 November cinema screening, steeped in the history of medical dramas, will be kinder to Bennett’s set-up than perhaps the theatre space has been. Large cast, multi-strand narratives with pacey incident-based drama and short scenes are the bread and butter of screen depictions of healthcare, so Allelujah! fits more completely into this genre than perhaps the different demands of the stage. As theatre, although it has plenty of potential and all the elements we’ve come to expect from a Bennett play, this needed to be more streamlined. Despite a productive partnership with Nicholas Hytner, the Artistic Director hasn’t taken a firm enough line with the work – arguably true of all of Bennett’s plays since The History Boys. Sometimes, even a national treasure needs an edit.

The overly dramatic final act, driven by plot twists, just distract from the people at the heart of the play, the patients, visitors and staff of The Beth hospital, and serves to dampen Bennett’s scathing political comment on the failure of the NHS to serve its community. With such an incredible cast of famous faces including the wonderful Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist – a key role – Sasha Dhawan as a newly arrived immigrant doctor on a student visa and Peter Forbes (the Follies connection) as a slick hospital manager, it seems a shame to have underused them all so cruelly – there are lots of half-ideas that never quite make a whole.

Screening Allelujah! may well alter the viewer’s perspective, placing it within the tradition of television and film drama that lends itself to the cliffhanger-based six-part series that Bennett’s broad and episodic approach calls upon. Audiences love Bennett’s warm wit, comic parody and relatable characterisation, full of stoic people in difficult scenarios that can be incredibly moving. It may be diluted in the enormous Bridge auditorium but will the proximity of cameras offer cinema-goers a unique perspective? 1 November 2018 – make an appointment.

Allelujah! is at the Bridge Theatre until 29 September and will be screened as-live in cinemas on 1 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


TV Preview: Bodyguard – BFI Southbank

Bodyguard - BBC1

A more public role than ever before, we are used to reflecting on the profile and lifestyle of our politicians from every angle. Culturally, there are plenty of examples of work that position MPs and Cabinet Ministers in their wider context; we’ve seen them from their own perspective in dramas like The Deal  and Coalition, we’ve seen them through the eyes of their closest aides and party whips in the original House of Cards, Yes Minister and stage play This House, and we have reflected on their role in broader circumstances as part of ensemble dramas like David Hare’s recent Collateral. Now, acclaimed writer Jed Mercurio adds to this portfolio with his new six-part thriller Bodyguard that pits the Home Secretary against her closest support, her Protection Command officer.

At the premiere of Episode One at the BFI last week with accompanying Q&A, writer Jed Mercurio stressed the importance of subtly grounding his work in the fears, concerns and issues of our age, while structuring work-based scenes around the individual’s need to do their job, and such conversations must reflect the natural interactions that allow people to fulfil their role. Often, the pursuer and the pursued toy with the truth, using silence and stillness as tools to create dramatic depth and credibility. Mercurio’s writing is notably free of excessive exposition and, as audiences have seen in fast-paced dramas Line of Duty and Cardiac Arrest, information is specifically revealed to the viewer at the right time or deliberately unfolded in realistically-constructed conversation.

As one member of the audience inevitably pointed out, the title brings with it a ready-made degree of expectation. But those expecting a brick-wall Kevin Costner-type slowly being thawed by his flamboyant and desirable charge, with tense actions scenes at the Oscar, all the to the strains of ‘I Will Always Love You’ will be disappointed. Bodyguard may share a title and a central male-female dynamic but, so far, there the allusions end.

On the basis of Episode One, which largely established the characters, context and a complicated power dynamic, this TV drama will head in a very different direction, challenging the ability of our two public servants to undertake their roles. And, with a troubled backstory, the show asks questions about a bodyguard’s ability to do his job in compromised political circumstances. As Keeley Hawes, who plays Home Secretary Julia Montague, explained the focus will be on deciding whether the life being protected is worth saving.

Yet, Episode One starts by exploring that idea in quite another context. Mercurio likes a high-tension opener and previous series of Line of Duty have begun with a dramatic police operation that will be repeatedly unpicked in the ensuing weeks. In Bodyguard, Mercurio uses what will (probably) be an isolated incident in the overall story, but one carefully designed to give the viewer an immediate insight into the core context of the drama – an atmosphere of terrorism and suspicion – that ground it in our recognisable reality. It also introduces us to our anti-hero David Budd, played by Richard Madden, whose perspective we will follow for the next six episodes.

Putting him instantly into a tense and carefully pitched incident in a public setting establishes not just his family situation, but almost wordlessly reveals aspects of his personality that will be crucial to the direction and resolution of the core plot later in the show. Without talky exposition, we see a constantly alert David, aware of everything around him, assessing a situation and feeling a duty to help without fear for his personal safety. He takes command, instantly calculating both the wider safety of the public and the humanity of the criminal, balancing his response to the situation, asking us to see him as smart (or reckless) enough to defy instruction where his own reading of a situation differs.

A high-stakes incident on a train full of families and innocent passengers emphasises the normalcy and rather grim condition of public transport in the slightly washed-out visual effect. Here, Mercurio places the viewer in a highly recognisable situation, a contained environment in which travellers have no power to control their speed, direction or immediate circumstances. In around 20-minutes, a fair chunk of Episode One, the writer gives us visual clues about David that confirm his level-headedness and compassion in a situation where most would panic.

As a variety of official security groups attempt to take control – all notably played by women – David only trusts his own assessment of the situation, and his ability to read the behaviour of individuals. How this affects what’s to come remains to be seen, but Mercurio uses this entire scenario as a shorthand introduction to the character we will invest-in over the coming weeks. That whatever else we learn about him, under pressure he kept control of himself.

But, David is not a classic selfless hero, and the scenes that follow are designed to act as a forerunner for the confliction he will encounter in the episodes ahead. From a seemingly happy family life, his personal circumstances are soon shown to be considerably more broken, and his experience as a soldier in Afghanistan will come to define the new role he is about to assume with the Home Secretary. Instantly, our perspective on what we have just seen on the train changes. Madden shows David visibly blanch,  clearly now more than an attempt to quell his fears, and instead it’s a nod to an earlier combat experience – suddenly Mercurio has turned us around, making a couple of easily missed moments of pause on the train make sense in a new way. And, though never explicitly referred to, we begin to understand that a PTSD theme will shape the future of this story.

Crucially, David is advised more than once to seek help for anger and related issues with the term “PTSD” on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but never actually vocalised. Panel Chair Kate Adie noted that there is an average 13-year delay between people experiencing a traumatic event and seeking help, so David sits within that timeframe, still unwilling to admit his experiences are having a damaging effect, or that his responses are now beyond his control. Mercurio explained that an official diagnosis would result in a “career hiatus”, forcing David to take a break from a job he seems to love, and, as Episode One implies, the only stability he has.

Asked about drawing on veteran testimony, Madden explained that few wanted to talk about it openly even among his group, but Bodyguard will deliberately avoid “crass flashbacks”, relying on the strength of Mercurio’s characterisation to reveal the interior life of the individuals he creates. Madden captures David’s inconsistencies extremely well, moving credibly from the anxious but calm control of the train scene to the emotive interactions with his family members, and the curt formality of his engagement with the Home Secretary. “I was attracted to the contradictions within the character… fighting with himself” Madden explained, aptly creating the complexity in David’s character that offers multiple avenues for the story’s trajectory. He uses the silences to grapple with his introspective moments, suggesting a man whose professionalism at work and more destructive personal circumstances will soon collide.

In this first episode, our impression of the Home Secretary Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes, is largely through the eyes of her surrounding staff. A subplot with a chaotic intern reveals an almost callous disregard of individuals who fail her, and our early impressions are purposefully coloured by David’s knowledge that she voted for the war he had to fight. Hawes is excellent in a difficult role where her initial purpose is largely to embody the preconceptions the audience has about senior politicians and the complaints of other characters – “I don’t need you to vote for me, only to protect me” she tells Budd coldly.

Affecting a slightly more refined accent suggesting the product of an expensive boarding school and Oxbridge, Hawes’s Julia cuts a powerful figure, determined to be publicly visible and impatient with the trivialities that appear to impede her work, seen in the impatience she displays when David checks her home each night. But Hawes hints at something more beneath this image, a humanity that the ensuing weeks may well reveal, as David comes to understand the person he’s now working for. Nothing in a Mercurio drama is black and white, so we can expect a spectrum of behaviour from this character and the rug pulled from under us as David’s approach to her changes.

There is much to draw upon in this opening episode, which nicely establishes a set of intriguing characters, a context of instability and fear, and a central relationship that could develop in many ways. We’re also promised the arrival of Gina McKee heading a much wider cast, so it’s clear larger forces will soon be at work. Drawing on his medical experience and RAF background, Mercurio’s writing continues to resonate because it takes a new perspective on seemingly familiar public service roles and explores the lasting consequences of corruption, ineptitude and poor decision-making. At the end of Episode One, what’s in store for David and Julia is unknown, but with so many interesting threads to draw on, and compelling lead performances, it’s all set to be a cracking and unmissable drama.

Episode One of Bodyguard was previewed at the BFI Southbank followed by a Q&A with Jed Mercurio, Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes, chaired by Kate AdieEpisode One will air on BBC1 on Sunday 26 August at 9pm . Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Aristocrats – Donmar Warehouse

Aristocrats - Donmar Warehouse

Lovers of Irish drama will be in their element this summer as London theatres host three major productions with a fourth – a new Martin McDonagh play – arriving at The Bridge in early autumn. Until then, a top-notch revival of McDonagh’s black comic treat The Lieutenant of Inishmore is playing to packed houses at the Noel Coward with Aidan Turner no small draw, while equally beloved TV star Colin Morgan leads a wonderful revival of Brien Friel’s Translations at the National Theatre which examines identity, language and community at a pivotal moment in Anglo-Irish history. Joining them is a Donmar Warehouse production of Friel’s lesser known play Aristocrats, a work so rarely considered that it hasn’t yet warranted its own Wikipedia page.

Written in 1979, just a year before the much stronger Translations, and peppered with the trademark Friel lyricism, Aristocrats never feels like an entirely successful construction. Previously staged by The National Theatre in 2005 with a then barely known Andrew Scott, Gina McKee and Derval Kirwan, as well as a 2014 production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, this latest version will likely be a first viewing for much of the audience. Being Friel, it’s stuffed with themes and meaningful moments, but a relatively short run-time means its characters and dramatic arc never entirely convince.

At a now dilapidated “Great House” overlooking Ballybeg, the O’Donnell children gather for the wedding of Claire and her much older fiancé Jerry (who we never meet). With their ageing father slowly dying upstairs, cared for by elder sister Judith, the siblings reunite for one last event, Casimir travelling from Heidelberg, while Alice and her villager-husband Eamon return from London. An American journalist writing a book about Catholic Irish aristocracy becomes the catalyst for destruction as a sunny picnic is haunted by memory and dissatisfaction, and the fantasy begins to crumble.

Friel actively creates a Chekhovian flavour, paying homage to a writer whose work Friel adapted many times. Somehow, the play never quite reaches the subtle heights of its inspiration, but there are echoes of Chekhov in both the setting and many of the play’s themes. The poverty of the ruling classes is something the Russian dramatist referred to many times, as once great families are forced to sell the ancestral home, to downsize while simultaneously watching former villagers rise in their place. We see this in The Cherry Orchard as Lopakhin, a self-made man from the peasant class, becomes the social equal of the nobility, and Friel reflects this in the marriage of Alice and Eamon, the grandson of the former O’Donnell housekeeper. And while considerably less successful, the switch from romanticised memory of happier days to the hard reality of money and change is pure Chekhov, forcing characters to face difficult truths.

Part of the problem is that to establish enough information about the family situation and how each individual fits into the story Friel has to include considerable exposition. So, much of Act One, which takes place across two scenes, feels like an elaborate set-up with clunky descriptions of how everyone came to be here told to Tom (Paul Higgins), the journalist, who becomes a rather crude expository device. Friel attempts to soften the blow by making us wonder how much of what we hear is true and whether the family are actively deceiving Tom or themselves in repeating the celebrity-filled stories they’ve heard about their family history. By the end of Act One, Friel has done enough to intrigue, but the overly forced set-up leaves you dramatically unsatisfied, which Lyndsey Turner’s production cannot quite resolve.

The notably shorter Act Two is much stronger. Set some days later where a crisis has been reached and the four siblings must now face-the-future, here the nods to Chekhov work much better, which in the Donmar’s production, brings with it a more sombre tone. While the business is briskly managed, there is a clear contrast with the wistful picnic scene, as you feel that childhood has been packed away and most of the remaining family members head-off with greater certainty about who they are, no longer clouded by delusion and fantasy.

The play is rather overloaded with themes and references that receive only cursory exploration. Friel hints that the now decrepit former Judge was once a terrible father to his children which, coupled with their mother’s suggested suicide, has affected them all in slightly different ways, although this is never fully uncovered. Equally, the focus of Tom’s research on Catholic aristocracy creates a sense of historic isolation around the family in a nation filled with Protestant landlords, and this is reflected in the O’Donnell’s lack of sentimental attachment to the house or the area. Turner uses this to imply a real separation between the family and the village, as though the two coexist but lacking the feudal concept of noblesse oblige. However, other than Alice’s business-like rejection of inheritance in Act Two, there’s little time in the story to really tease out the national, economic and political consequence of being in a Catholic noble family.

Es Devlin has created a simple duck-egg blue sunken stage littered with laced cushions, beautiful fruit bowls and blowsy peonies, that gives an impression of Edwardian Anglicisation. Until Alice walks on in her lurid orange 1970s maxi-dress, it is deliberately difficult to quite pin down the era, and Devlin’s modern box with classical accents reflects Friel’s concern with identity and external influences shaping Irish heritage. Rather than a fussy mansion set Devlin uses a dollshouse for simplicity (although this has become an overly common reference, last seen in The Inheritance), while the backdrop is slowly peeled away by one actor to reveal a classical scene of a mother presiding over a picnic, reinforcing this idea of the family suffering stemming from childhood trauma.

Despite the core family being dominated by the three sisters, it is the male roles that feel more substantial. David Dawson’s Casimir is a talkative returnee, eager to make the picnic just-so and thrilled by the chance to relive so many childhood memories and games. Casimir is an effete and light presence, so Dawson plays him as a dream-like figure, almost as though the whole character has stepped directly from the Edwardian past. This adds quite well to the concept of truth that runs through the show, and several times other characters question how real Casimir’s German wife and three children really are, which reinforces the eagerness of the fake croquet and similar games that shape the picnic scene. Dawson intriguingly plays-up this ambiguity so we’re never quite sure if his Casimir is a just pleasant man, delighted with his life or a fantasist hiding behind a pretence of family.

The sisters are distinct but not quite so well drawn. Elaine Cassidy’s Alice is a troubled figure, the only member of the family to truly embrace the late 70s aesthetic in Moritz Junge’s psychedelic costume for the character. Alice has relatively little to say for much of the show, hungover, she ominously stalks the picnic trying to find respite from her implied troubles that seem to proceed from more than just a headache. Cassidy conveys a deep dissatisfaction with Alice’s life, an alcoholic who is less than enamoured of her husband or this return to a place she once escaped. But Friel doesn’t give us the chance to find out much more, so we never really get to know how her childhood created the unhappy woman she has become.

Eileen Walsh as matriarch Judith doesn’t appear until well into the first Act, having spent years taking care of their ailing father. She has an interesting monologue at the picnic in which she describes her intense daily routine as a substitute mother-figure caring for sister Claire and tending to their father, in which Walsh implies an erosion of her own humanity that permanent service has caused. But later, Walsh also shows us some steel as Judith refuses to be guided by her siblings and deliberately ignores references to a former relationship with Eamon. Again, why Judith has ended-up here and what this means for her character are left unexplored by Friel, although her future doesn’t seem any more hopeful.

The baby of the family Claire, played by Aisling Loftus, is even more dreamlike than her brother Casimir who she is clearly closest to. About to marry a man more than 30 years her senior, we learn very little about Claire except her love of playing the piano – here depicted by holding sheets of music implying more O’Donnell fantasy – and playing games. An accomplished young lady in the traditional sense, Loftus’s Claire, like Dawson, becomes a hazy dreamlike figure, another echo from the Edwardian past. But the effect of her childhood, why she is seeking a father-figure and the relationship with her sisters is left aside.

Beyond the family, Emmet Kirwan’s Eamon is a gregarious figure with an undertone of something darker, a possible bully who we learn early on struck his wife the previous day. Interestingly, with antecedents in domestic service at the House, Eamon seems most protective of the place, expressing a possessiveness that the family don’t share. Friel tells us he was once a villager and, at one time or another, romanced all the sisters, but the nature of those relationship aren’t fully considered, even though Eamon represents the rise of the “new man”, coming to dominate the aristocratic people he would once have bowed to.

In a summer of great Irish drama, this feels unsatisfactory by comparison. Visually, Turner’s image of broken modernity is an interesting one, with old and new pulling against each other throughout the play. With press night ahead this week, other than relishing the charm of Friel’s language, there’s little for the cast to improve because the faults in Aristocrats lie with Friel. This production draws-out all of the core themes but cannot overcome the play’s reliance on heavy exposition and failure to satisfactorily resolve its own questions about the past of these characters. If you have the choice, probably see Translations instead.

Aristocrats is at the Donmar Warehouse until 22 September. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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