Monthly Archives: October 2018

Film Review: Peterloo

Peterloo by Mike Leigh

As we think more carefully about the way we take our rights and freedoms for granted, political representation and the will of the people are topics that rear their head again and again. A hundred years since the campaign for women’s suffrage resulted in partial success, the quest for electoral rights for working men began more than a century before that as post-industrialisation Britain experienced a growth in manufacturing cities and, combined with increased literacy rates, meant the nineteenth-century was characterised by petitions and protests to extend the franchise.

One important step on the road to universal suffrage was arguably the Peterloo “massacre” of 1819 – a peaceful gathering in Manchester, the culmination of a campaign of oratory and political meetings held in the taverns and factories of the industrial north. By no means the first such assembly, and certainly not the last, Peterloo is pivotal because of the panic it created amongst the ruling elite, a panic which meant the local militia shed the blood of its own civilians, killing 15 and injuring over 600 men, women and children. Surprising then that it has taken so long for a single film to be dedicated to this important incident at St Peter’s Field, dubbed “Peterloo” by the media forevermore.

Mike Leigh’s 2.5 hour film which premiered in Manchester as part of the London Film Festival and opens in cinemas on Friday is a multi-stranded exploration of the various lives, professions and tensions that lead into the powder keg that was Peterloo. This should have been a definitive depiction, like Zulu or even Suffragette, the one film that would represent this event on celluloid and raise greater awareness of its importance, but Leigh’s film is too disparate, overlong and definitely overly-earnest, focusing more on generic depictions of working-class life with people peeling potatoes on their doorsteps. Beyond the outrage, rather crucially, it tells us remarkably little about the importance of Peterloo.

As the film opens, a couple of men, a canon and some smoke are an approximation of Waterloo in 1815, from which a single soldier is left standing. We imagine as this red-coated and clearly shell-shocked young man returns home to Lancashire that this will be his story, that we will follow him and his family through a series of events that will culminate at Peterloo four years later. This is only partially true and instead Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, widens his lens to consider some of the factory workers who run political discussion groups, a local newspaper editor, the occasional female emancipation club, musicians, families, local magistrates, the King and orator Henry Hunt who becomes the star attraction.

The downside of this approach, though clearly well researched and scrupulously adhering to the primary sources, creates a laboured story, scenes of working-class life at an almost documentary level without ever drawing them together to make a consistent point about the causes and consequences of Peterloo. There is some wince-inducing dialogue to explain the Corn Laws and Habeas Corpus, and Leigh spends far too long in the build-up – more than two hours of the film – without really generating the kind of combustible tension that is needed to drive the drama. The crucial meeting itself is interesting and very well filmed but confined to about 20 minutes (the alleged time it took for the army to clear the field), much of which are shots of people waiting in anticipation for Hunt to arrive or the in-fighting between the magistrates which leaches tension from proceedings.

When the soldiers eventually arrive and the action sequences begin, they are poignant and brutal, dramatically if not politically satisfying, making-up for much of the film’s slow pace thereto. But in a way the brevity of this moment arguably doesn’t live up to the subsequent tales of slaughter and carnage that history has recorded. Partially this is because Leigh is so heavy-handed in his management of the story, so determined to make a political statement that the early sections are like being spoon-fed castor oil for two hours, you know it’s good for you but you don’t really enjoy it.

While Leigh focuses consistently on the various parties and lives to be affected by Peterloo, there is little overall sense of what it meant, both as a milepost on the way to wider enfranchisement and as a change in the relationships between government and the governed in Britain. Although we are given a clear sense of the politicisation of the working-class on a small scale through the meetings and pamphlets shown in the film, the wider context (other than its proximity to Waterloo in date only) is almost entirely missing, a choice that feels deliberate in order to retain maximum sympathy for the characters Leigh specifically wants us to admire for their self-sacrificing and entirely innocent role in the event.

To attempt to understand something is not at all the same things as excusing it, and we learn nothing about the motivations of the magistrates, army and local government officials who almost inexplicably attack their own people. In reality, the years leading up to the August meeting in St Peter’s Field were full of instability and fear. Napoleon may have been defeated but the long shadow of the French Revolution lingered as our nearest neighbours vacillated between monarchy and various-forms of army-led republicanism. It created a culture of fear within the English ruling-class that contributed to the great nervousness with which the planned arrival of 60,000 people in a confined space was received.

While Leigh’s film goes to great lengths to demonstrate that protesters were unarmed at nothing more than a summer fare – a scenario Hunt insisted on as key speaker – and reflected in the film by an arch rabble-rouser ordering the men to disarm themselves of cudgels and sticks before they march to the assembly, in context, several violent uprisings had occurred in recent times, as well as mill and factory equipment being smashed throughout the north by the Luddites in the years either side of Waterloo, so there was little reason for the authorities to think there wouldn’t be some who could used this meeting to forward a more aggressive agenda.

None of this justifies the events of Peterloo or the unwarranted brutality of the official response, but as vital context it is entirely missing from a film that somewhat extracts it characters from their period, an era in which a loathed Prince Regent was deputising for a mad King, soldiers returned from war expecting reward, and a history of political agitation and public protest was laid out in a relatively newly established newspaper media. Democratic demands began to filter down from the ruling elite, who had enjoyed the public tussles of Charles James Fox and Pitt the Younger, surrounded by their aristocratic celebrity friends just a couple of decades before, to the hard-working men of Manchester and its environs.

By turning away from all of this with cartoonish depictions of the local government and courtly worlds, it drains meaning from the film. Leigh faithfully recreates the events from the perspective of particular groups right down to the small gestures recorded in the primary sources, yet the overall effect is wanting, as though a key piece of the jigsaw is missing. We see plenty of what, but we never see why. This is compounded by the lack of consequences, the movie just ends with injuries and arrests, the carnage of a battlefield mirroring the Waterloo scene at the start, but no on-screen information cards to tell us what happened to the individuals or the cause of electoral reform in the nineteenth-century.

Leigh explained in the ensuing Q&A that this was a purposeful choice so the audience can take any number of meanings from the film, whereas in fact it undermines it at the final moment. As one of the most significant events in working-class history it is vital to know that these events led directly to the formation of the unified political groups of the future including the Chartists whose own six-point manifesto has been the basis of many of our modern electoral rights, but its genesis was among the groups that attended Peterloo. It is also important to recognise that while the franchise was widened for property owning men in 1867 and 1884, it wasn’t until a hundred years after Peterloo that all men and some women could vote. This film not only fails to show us why Peterloo happened, but also why it became such an important marker in government-citizen relations.

The performances are largely good within the fairly two-dimensional parameters of most of the characters, and there are particularly impressive turns from Pearce Quigley as Joseph, a decent working man who fights against his disapproving wife Nellie (Maxine Peake) to stand up for the rights of his family, Philip Jackson as local campaigner John Knight, the ever-entertaining Karl Johnson as the Home Secretary a conduit for news between the protesters and Tim McInnerny’s grotesque Prince Regent. The film really only gets going when Rory Kinnear turns-up as Henry Hunt, a much-needed shot in the arm to plot development and pace. His Macbeth may have lacked danger, but Kinnear has a fantastic time here as the arrogant and charmless orator more in love with his fame and himself than any of the causes he speaks so passionately about. Hunt is the only character permitted shades of grey and despite an ennobled background, he’s clearly on the side of the angles in this production which forgives his failings. Everyone else is basically wholly good or wholly bad or cowardly.

Peterloo has some good sequences and arrives at a well-presented if all too short representation of the event, one which will provoke feelings of outrage and horror at the sight of British soldiers behaving as though there were at war and slicing at their own countrymen as if they were the enemy. For a few minutes, the film’s purpose is crystal clear and there is a visceral sense of the panic, barbarity and shame that the event has caused, earning its place in history. It is such a shame that its preamble is so drawn out and its dramatic structure poorly considered. There was always a good Peterloo film waiting to be made, but this isn’t it.

Peterloo was shown at the London Film Festival and is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 2 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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TV Preview: The Little Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl - BBC

We are in a golden age for drama and the BBC is at the forefront of a new wave of high-quality, unmissable storytelling, delivering some of the best new content this year, a lot of it in the last few weeks. Killing Eve, Trust, Press and Black Earth Rising, multi-part tales with high-quality performances. And then there was Bodyguard; collectively the nation’s heart stopped every Sunday night watching Jed Mecurio’s tense and twisty tale of politics and terrorism, so if you are feeling bereft by its conclusion then only one writer can even possibly compete, John le Carré.

A little over 2.5 years ago Sunday nights meant only one thing – The Night Manager – a multi-funded game-changer that brought the ambitious production values of film to the small screen with considerable style. Now, the same company have adapted another le Carré novel, The Little Drummer Girl, set in the late 1970s and examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played-out across Europe as spy organisations interconnect with terrorist cells. The first two episodes were previewed at the London Film Festival ahead of the show’s UK air date of Sunday 28 October, promising a story every bit as gripping, dangerous and obsessive as Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston proved to be. Warn the pubs, restaurants and bars because once again none of us will be going out on a Sunday night.

Episode One begins with a bomb delivered by a beautiful blonde woman and her mysterious companion to a Jewish home in Germany where it explodes killing a family. A Mossad agent known as “Marty” is on the trail of a Palestinian anarchist group targeting Israeli officials and known for recruiting a terrorist network to aggravate the conflict in the Middle East. But Marty needs an agent, enter Charlie, an actress spotted in a ropey pub theatre production of Saint Joan and offered a touring role in As You Like It. She is pursued to Greece by the enigmatic “Becker” who makes his presence known.

With Charlie firmly in their sights, Episode Two focuses on her incendiary political views, colourful backstory and just what they need her to do. Information is drip-fed to her as Marty’s team try to entice and force her help with some murky espionage. Meanwhile a second team has apprehended a key source and must make him reveal the whereabouts of an important meeting. With Marty closely connected to his equivalent number in Germany, just what can a single English woman achieve, and is Charlie on anyone’s side but her own?

Unusual for le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl is one of the few books with an independent female protagonist. Adapted by Claire Wilson and Michael Lesslie who collaborated closely while taking the lead on specific episodes, they have used le Carré’s base to make Charlie a fascinating and complex character with more than a bit about her. That shouldn’t be a surprise in 2018, but Charlie is a multi-faceted creation which in Florence Pugh’s excellent central performance leaves plenty of unanswered questions, proving to be every-bit as slippery and ultimately unknowable as her spymasters.

An intelligent girl living on her wits and an assured sexual confidence, the magnanimity with which she eases from actor on tour to agent-in-training is intriguing, taking it all in her stride with surprisingly little resistance or fear. Despite claims of a difficult background it becomes almost impossible for the other characters or the audience to know how much Charlie is acting and the extent to which she’s always some character or other. No one is ever who they seem in a le Carré, not even to themselves, least of all the supposed heroes, so seeing Pugh explore the edges of her character over the remaining four episodes will be a treat in itself.

Again, no le Carré story is complete without a series of intrigues within intrigues, and already the first two previews have established seemingly rival organisations, a dangerous and unstable political context, the involvement of innocents and a multinational landscape. And all of that gives rise to plenty of questions which the remaining episodes will answer. Do Marty’s two teams know about each other and why is there an English woman (Miss Bach played by Clare Holman) working for Mossad – is she a genuine recruit, a secondment from British intelligence or a plant? What role does “Michel” (Amir Khoury) have in the terrorist network, what is his link to Charlie, why did he plant the bomb and did both his brothers really die for the cause?

There are also links to the German secret service, and potentially to Charlie’s own father who may or may not have “disappeared” depending on which of her stories are true, and are her sun-worshipping actor friends as innocent as they seem? Events move fast in these initial episodes, establishing the various players and setting the scene for what’s to come, but although we are following Charlie, none of that means she or we are on the side of the good guys, but it’s going to be fun finding out.

Continuing his run of darkly engaging TV roles which mostly recently included a pivotal role in Big Little Lies, Alexander Skarsgård plays Becker/ Jose / Peter / Michel, a man who is at least one if not all of his men depending on the day, the scenario and the game. Like the most accomplished poker-player he gives nothing away, a consummate spy, it’s never clear what his motivation might be. By the end of episode two, he proves as complete an actor as Charlie, but strangely abstemious, he is no brooding hero, Becker clearly has secrets.

Skarsgård and Pugh crackle together, like an ever-evolving game of cat and mouse where you can’t tell who is toying with who. Repeatedly he leads her to the brink only to rapidly change the tone, while Charlies responds by trying to outwit him, using her allure to compromise Becker but neither succeeds in besting the other. Setting-out on a mission together, Becker tries to protect her from his superiors but whether their chemistry becomes physical or merely the mutual recognition of two performers knowing they are being played remains to be seen.

Another man with secrets is Marty Kurtz, the Mossad leader who leaves a trail of mystery in his wake as he spins a complex web between his shadowy German contact with furtive meetings over coffee and cake, the recruitment and grooming of Charlie to undertake a secret infiltration, and what we presume are his second team, hidden in a bunker somewhere extracting compromising material. Michael Shannon’s accent may be quite gloopy, but his character is like smoke, a man with his eye on the end result whatever the cost. All of this bodes well from a plot that will twist and shift in the coming episodes.

The Little Drummer Girl has lots to do to visually compete with Susanne Bier’s outstanding work on The Night Manager, a glossy treat that juxtaposed brutal violence with beautiful cinematography and picture-perfect locations. The trick for South Korean director Park Chan-wook is not to bother competing at all, at least not in quite the same way. Using the in vogue 70s aesthetic, Chan-wook uses colour rather than light to tell the story, saturating his images and particular characters with bright Mediterranean colours – vibrant yellow, deep sea blues, spring greens, orange, the occasionally flash of scarlet, and because it’s the 70s, brown. They bring a sensuality to each frame that oozes from the screen, whether set in the cosy autumnal interior of a London pub or the richly sunlit beaches and taverners of Greece.

And there is plenty of dazzling location-hopping to take the audience away from our dark Sunday nights and off to London, Munich and Athens already but with a trail leading across Eastern Europe and potentially to Israel by the end of the series. Chan-wook draws it all together in a carefully controlled visual design that uses wonderful examples of brutalist architecture to graphically marry different locations into one cohesive show.

Similar to the 2012 film version of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, there are plenty of concrete and marbled interiors that represent the 70s so well, sleek, clean and a bit emotionless with hard exteriors that the characters must reflect. And concrete in particular responds so well to the rays of coloured lighting that Chan-wook employs to vary the tone and intimacy of his scenes. The whole concept is richly detailed and should offer just enough exotic allure to keep the nation gripped while we try to work out le Carré’s complex mystery.

Scheduled to air from Sunday 28 October, this version of The Little Drummer Girl is everything you could want from a le Carré adaptation. While updating The Night Manager to the period of the Arab Spring added new resonance, here the 1970s setting still has plenty to say about the complex nature of the secret world in an increasingly fractured Europe. Bathed in shadow, vibrantly coloured with an absorbing plot, characters with plenty of dark edges and abundant intrigue, the nation’s new drama obsession is here. This really is a golden age for television drama, but with this one don’t believe anything you see, keep your wits about you and enjoy!

The Little Drummer Girl starts on Sunday 28 October at 9pm on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Company – Gielgud Theatre

Company - Gielgud Theatre

The world may have changed considerably since the premiere of Company in 1970 but two things are very much the same; first the unceasing expectation that all women in their 20s and 30s are desperate for marriage and children, and the second is audiences’ enduring love of Stephen Sondheim. Unsurprisingly, the two have often gone hand-in-hand, and as you age the meaning of Sondheim’s work seems to deepen as real life and expectation, truth and illusion start to diverge. Never really out of fashion, this last year major theatres were given an extraordinary reminder of the power of Sondheim’s work when the National Theatre revived Follies with a generation-defining production filled with bittersweet regret and heart-breaking poignancy. Now Marianne Elliott brings Company to the West End with a production that may well change the musical forever.

Gender-swapped productions are fairly commonplace in theatre-land but, as with Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse the trick is to use what could be a gimmick to reveal new and valuable insights into well-worn productions. But few so completely transform their original that seeing it for the first time you would never know it hadn’t been written that way, and it is the highest compliment to Elliott and her team that this version of Company, that plays with gender and sexuality, is not even seamless, it’s just entirely right, as though Sondheim had a female lead and at least one same-sex couple in mind when he put pen to paper more than four decades ago.

Elliott’s triumphant production works so well because the character of Bobbie makes perfect sense in 2018, and while a male protagonist would be fine, arguably the pressures on men to settle down in their mid-30s would feel considerably less convincing than it did in more conservative times. Biologically and socially, however, women are endlessly questioned and judged for their choices and, in a world that still encourages young women to only value their accomplishments if they manage to attract a partner, a 35-year old female Bobbie happily clinging to her single life while unduly pressured by her married friends feels incredibly pertinent and frustratingly familiar. All kinds of relationships are now acceptable with anyone, but a woman who wants to be single and childless is still an alarming prospect for a society peddling a Noah’s Ark mindset.

Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie just makes perfect sense and in Elliott’s production we see how feeling that external pressure at 35 becomes a moment for reflection and assessment of her life so far. What follows is a non-linear collection of scenes, fragments of information about the surrounding social structure which our beleaguered heroine steps in and out of – notably Bobbie is the only character not to use the door into the various family homes but breaks the imaginary fourth wall to step directly out of one scenario into another.

Sondheim uses the same technique he applied to Follies, merging memories with the present day, but has a thematic rather than a directly narrative purpose, asking the audience to see through Bobbie’s eyes as she tries to determine the pros and cons of a settled relationship. Each of the couples in her friendship group are given their own song and identity that takes Bobbie through the very different approaches on offer – from the sweet and devoted rough and tumble of Sarah and Harry who finish each other’s sentences, correct anecdote details and find time to wrestle while singing The Little Things You do Together, to the equally devoted marriage of Jenny and David who have a slightly different power balance, tempering their fun with sober restraint and responsibility, while Susan and Peter find themselves drifting apart.

Two very different models deliver more pathos, first with caustic friend Joanne, married for the third time to a younger man and refusing to believe he feels any genuine love for her (which he does), and finally same-sex couple Paul and his boyfriend Jamie who debates heading down the aisle in one of the show’s finest sequences ‘I’m Not Getting Married Today’. Each pairing has a moment in the spotlight and a theme song which whirl around Bobbie, leaving her feeling awkward, sad and a million miles from wanting to settle down herself.

Crucial to the success of what could be a rather choppy experience is Marianne Elliott’s overarching vision for the show, which, working with set and costumes designed by Bunny Christie, unifies the disparate elements to provide a memorable visual spectacle and an intimate story of one woman at a crisis point. Borrowing a touch of the Angels in America aesthetic, we see Bobbie’s bright, free, pink neon-lit world clashing with the warm pastel tones reserved for the couples, pulling our protagonist in opposing directions – towards and away from the life she has full of socialising, casual relationships and freedom, contrasted with the American ideal of domestic perfection represented in the pale cosiness of her friends’ houses. Bobbie, dressed in brightest red, stands in the middle weighing-up her true self against social expectation.

There are some wonderfully comic scenes as our heroine tries to choose between her three boyfriends. Together they sing the 50s-esque You Could Drive a Person Crazy delivering a routine inspired by wholesome girl-groups of the era, a nice piece of gender-mixed choreography to emphasise their subordinate role in Bobbie’s life. Individually they get a mini-storyline as Bobbie sizes them up for commitment and each time coming-up short. There is plenty of comedy in these scenarios as nervy in-flight steward Andy (Richard Fleesman), geeky Theo (Matthew Seadon-Young) and self-loving rocker PJ (George Blagden) equally try to work out if Bobbie is the one for them.

Elliott’s direction smoothly charts a path between all of these varied narratives, moving interconnected neon-rimmed boxes together to create a continuous apartment, single rooms in multiple houses, a couple of subway carriages and even a whole terraced street. To see innovative stagecraft like this outside of somewhere like the National Theatre is really inspiring, and after the rather static Imperium here at the Gielgud over the summer, it is important to see that with a bit of imagination, even the oldest theatres can be transformed into vibrant, living spaces that serve the ends of the play rather than asking the work to adapt to the venue.

The performances are every bit as delightful and polished as the visual spectacle, with the cast creating a convincing set of well-worn friends who live vicariously through their singleton. Gathered for her birthday – a scene which punctuates the show – there is both a unity and in the individual scenes a love for Bobbie that goes hand-in-hand with the genuine concern for her future. But this is her show, and Rosalie Craig captures well the internal division in Bobbie’s mind, knowing that life she is living is the one for her, but nonetheless succumbing, at least momentarily, to the panic exerted by her friends.

Craig has a natural comic timing, often reacting with exasperation or awkwardness to the odd behaviour of those around her. A particularly entertaining scene in bed with Andy, sees Bobbie’s male friends perform Poor Baby / Tick Tock while she entices him to perform, all the while listening to the voices she thinks are in her head. The staging of the solos in a vast empty space are perhaps a little underwhelming, and while the point is that all the madness seeps away leaving Bobbie alone, they just lack dynamism. Craig performs them extremely well wringing full meaning from both Someone is Waiting and Marry Me a Little but visually they need a little help. The famous finale Being Alive is wonderful though and Craig builds to it through the show and within the song musing on the emotional shelter Bobbie has created around herself and where she goes from here.

Apart from a few well-timed lines, it’s not until quite near the end of the show that the audience gets to see Patti Lupone’s Joanne at close quarters in the song Ladies Who Lunch. It’s a lovely crowd-pleaser for fans of the eminent Broadway star, but Lupone isn’t in Company to rest on her laurels, bringing a poignancy that fleshes out a relatively small support role. The hard exterior and feigned exhaustion with society is clearly just armour in Lupone’s performance, protecting her from the deep vulnerability that comes from truly loving Larry (Ben Lewis) and fear of ever losing him.

Each of the couples is equally memorable; as expected Mel Giedroyc hits all the comic beats as Sarah while Gavin Spokes reveals a wonderful voice as he continues his West End success as Harry, after appearing as Major Ingram in Quiz earlier this year. Jennifer Saayeng’s sensible Jenny has one eye on adult responsibility keeping husband David (Richard Henders) from having too much fun, alongside Daisy Mawood’s Susan and Ashley Campbell’s Peter keeping up appearances as their marriage crumbles.

In a production that has shaken-up the way we look at established musical characters, it is Jonathan Bailey playing the gender-swapped Jamie that almost steals the entire show. Such a wonderful performer capable of great depth and sensitivity as the beautiful The York Realist at the Donmar showed earlier this year, Bailey’s big moment happens when his character gets cold feet on his wedding day. An absolute joy delivered at breath-taking speed reflecting Jamie’s desperate panic, and several attempts to hide in various unlikely kitchen crannies, Bailey deservedly receives a big ovation for a wonderful number that leaves you wanting more.

It may lack the desperate ache of Follies, but this version of Company may well change the musical forever – where it works for the story, gender and sexuality in classic musicals could become more fluid, allowing theatre-makers free reign to reimagine well-known shows for a new generation. Like Shakespeare, Sondheim deals with universal experiences and emotions, giving his work a timelessness and broad applicability that not only makes Elliott’s imaginative production entirely consistent with Sondheim’s original intent, it is also a great night out.

Company is at the Gielgud Theatre until 22 December and tickets start at £12.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Measure for Measure – Donmar Warehouse

Measure for Measure - Donmar Warehouse

As Josie Rourke enters her final months as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, schemes like Barclays Front Row and now Klaxon offering low-priced tickets to often sold-out shows, along with a focus on female-led theatre will be her legacy. Fitting then that part of her directorial swansong should be an inspired and experimental take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In a year of revelations about the abuse of power and sexual misconduct, the timing couldn’t be better for this intriguing tale of blackmail, morality and duty.

Gender-blind casting has becoming fairly standard in recent years, at the most basic level giving female actors the chance to play some of drama’s greatest roles, while also offering alternative perspectives on familiar scenarios. But one thing you never see is the same character simultaneously from the male and female perspective, so while a female Henry V might be intriguing, audiences cannot compare this instantly with an equivalent male performance and must wait until some other production comes along. Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure changes all that.

On the same night, either side of the interval, the roles of Angelo and Isabella are shared by Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell, while the production also divides its time between the early seventeenth century and 2018. There were various possibilities for this approach – the actors could play the roles on alternate nights as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller did with Frankenstein, or the swap could simply happen half way through the play. Instead, O’Rourke plumps for the most unusual option, slashing the text to a core 90 minutes and playing it through twice, that is exactly the same text once with Lowden as Angelo and Atwell as Isabella, and after the interval, playing it all again with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines (but called Isabella) and Lowden performing as Isabella (but called Angelo). It’s a risky strategy with a show that ultimate clocks in at around three hours, but it’s a daring endeavour that is richly rewarding.

The Duke of Vienna decides to take a holiday and leave his reluctant friend Angelo in charge, making him the city’s leading judge. A pure and moral region, Claudio is accused of fornication and the sober Angelo sentences him to death. Encouraged to plead for his life, Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice nun, duly visits Angelo who is instantly captivated by her, offering to spare her brother’s life in return for her virginity. Forced to choose between her body and her soul, can Angelo’s terrible power be bested?

The easy abuse of power and how it changes people’s behaviour is a core theme for Shakespeare, throwing the individual’s moral code into flux. Most often for murderous or greedy ends, characters pursue power to alter their own status, to win a higher position in government as happens in Hamlet and Macbeth or to jealously disrupt the purer life of someone else as in Othello. In Measure for Measure, power is wielded purely for sexual purposes, Angelo’s conquest of Isabella won’t later affect the materiality of his circumstances in any way, he propositions her as a temporary distraction, more an exercise in ego than a strategy for higher gain – themes that will resonant strongly with the events of the last year.

All of this comes across really strongly in the first half of the Donmar’s production, largely divested of its subplots, the audience is asked to focus sharply on the central theme of moral and bodily corruption in a show that asks big questions about trading one for the other. But Rourke ensures it’s not an open and shut case, she wants us to consider the opposing positions of Angelo and Isabella, to ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation and to think about the ways in which morality has changed in 400 years. Is Isabella a paragon, a saintly figure to be admired, or is her refusal to succumb to Angelo’s desires, and thereby assure her brother’s death, a cruel and stubborn act?

In this first section, the sympathies deliberately sway. Jack Lowden’s Angelo is an interesting proposition, a man seemingly driven by right and duty, applying the law as it stands but without compassion or clemency. His first encounter with Isabella clearly ignites a rapid and unexpected passion that he is unused to experiencing, and Lowden makes us believe he genuinely falls for her – it appears to mean far more to him than just having the upper hand.

But Lowden never lets us forget that how Angelo translates that emotion is monstrous, however genuine his feeling for Isabella, the scene in which he makes his intentions clear is deeply uncomfortable. As he looms in on her, riven with lust, she comprehends his purpose exactly, and Atwell is superb in relaying the powerlessness and fear that Isabella feels in that moment, frozen and shaking with tears that becomes a striking reminder that Angelo’s unrequited love for her can never excuse his invasive manipulation of her body and mind.

As the story is resolved the production flashes forward to 2018 and replays the first scene again, this time with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines but named as Isabella. After the interval, the play resumes from the condemnation of Claudio, and Atwell’s approach is slightly different to Lowden’s – although both are equally valid and fascinating creations. She makes the character more beguiling, more openly lustful and confident, while no less deceptively calculating. This Isabella has greater self-assurance than the equivalent Angelo in Act One, who seemed a cold man remote from the world and almost awoken by his passion. Instead, Atwell plays her as a sharp-minded woman seizing on a tasty opportunity that suddenly presents itself, worldly and entitled.

Her scenes with Lowden now are quite different, without the physical height and strength to overcome him, she manoeuvres him into position and waits to pounce. Openly admiring him, Atwell has a way of tilting her head to peer at Angelo (reading as Isabella), emphasising her social if not muscular dominance over him. Instead of the devout virgin of 1604, Lowden gives us a former bad boy who has found redemption at a Christian retreat and Isabella’s pursuit of him tests his resolve – although, it is more awkward than uncomfortable to watch him extricate himself from the proposition scene, perhaps because he seems more acquainted with the world and better able to handle himself than the trapped young woman of the original.

It may seem a chore to watch the same show through twice and you do need a bit of resolve to stick with it, but the outcome is worth the investment. There are two very interesting things happening in this finely honed and balanced production; first one way to read the approach is that the Isabella and Angelo of the second half are the direct consequence of the Isabella and Angelo of the first. Forget the fact they swap lines and imagine what actually happened to the characters at the end of Shakespeare’s original play, who did they become in the future?

Here Rourke asks us to consider, that although Isabella was young, innocent and seemingly incorruptible in terms of her chastity, did having the power of life and death over another man (even for the right reasons) ultimately corrupt her? Did close exposure to that male world of politics and power create a future scenario in which the one-time victim becomes the perpetrator? Atwell certainly hints that the fiery certainty of Isabella in Act One could be the same woman in Act Two only older and more experienced. Her righteousness after the interval seems to suggest the dying embers of an original morality now corrupted by authority.

Likewise, it is entirely conceivable that the dastardly Angelo has spent the intervening years seeking atonement for his sins, arriving at the retreat as a form of therapy to correct his poor behaviour. Like Atwell, Lowden makes this interpretation entirely credible drawing on his portrait of initial sobriety as Act One Angelo to inform and make sense of his Act Two desire to seek religious penance for his earlier behaviour. His reaction to Isabella’s proposition is then deepened by the idea that he now understands the damaging effect of his original behaviour, hence the determination not to succumb. So the question really becomes – are Angelo and Isabella essentially two sides of the same coin, an eternal loop of corruption and reclamation?

Secondly, are we also being asked to question our own judgement about the differences between the two scenarios? Morally they are inexcusably the same, a more powerful individual manipulating a weaker one is unquestionably wrong, but watching it, the production is also testing our own conscience and whether we feel that a gender-swapped twenty-first century Isabella propositioning Angelo is less troubling that the seventeenth-century original. Does society still innately believe that a woman, lacking in physical strength, cannot cajole a man into sex in the same way? Part of that is in the equivalent performances in which Lowden’s cold Angelo is more repellent than Atwell’s slightly coquettish and personable Isabella, but this Measure for Measure asks tough questions – are we really as liberal as we’d like to think? Using power to manipulate another person should be the same regardless of gender but it is intriguing how the alternative perspective of the second half plays with our prejudices on this issue.

Cynically, a double dose of Measure for Measure shouldn’t work, but this re-gendered combination is a gamble that pays off, sending you home with plenty to think about for days afterwards. Peter McKintosh’s simple set, combined with Howard Harrison’s interesting lighting design easily evokes two eras, allowing the power of the lower-lit traditional section to speak for itself uncluttered by scenery, while adding a livelier feel for 2018. The overall concept adds some knowing touches to the modern era with conversations transposed to phone calls and the local prostitutes given an Eastern European background.

Among the supporting cast, Nicholas Burns adds a creepy touch as the helpful undercover Duke with an agenda of his own. His pursuit of Isabella is as disturbing as Angelo’s showing that predators may come disguised as white knights, while Burns becomes more physical in his attempt to seduce Angelo in 2018 which contrasts well with Isabella’s more implicit approach. Matt Bardock is equally notable as the rascally Lucio, while Sule Rimi gives the imprisoned Claudio plenty of injured resentment at his sister / brother’s refusal to help.

As Josie Rourke steps down from the Donmar, this show is one to remember for all the right reasons. In a year of very strong Shakespeare interpretations – Julius Caesar, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra especially – this Measure for Measure has taken the biggest gamble of them all and won. With two terrific performers in Atwell and Lowden each giving two absorbing performances, it is an evening that opens your eyes to how differently Shakespeare’s text can be interpreted and how changing gender can give theatre an added political power.

Measure for Measure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 November. Tickets are sold-out but extra seats will available via Klaxon every Monday and day seats at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Sketching – Wilton’s Music Hall

Sketching - Wilton's Music Hall

The anthology series has had a renaissance on television with shows like Black Mirror and Inside No 9 proving that contained storytelling can be dramatically satisfying and compulsive viewing. In theatre it is far less common, although Jamie Lloyd’s successful and energised Pinter at the Pinter season is taking a compendium approach to presenting multiple one act plays and monologues across successive evenings. James Graham’s new show Sketching, which has its press night at Wilton’s Music Hall tomorrow, attempts a purer form of anthology, blending stories from eight competition winners to co-create a patchwork of London life.

Graham ran an open search for writers, specifically targeting under-represented voices from around the UK to work with him on a multi-perspective show that uses Sketches by Boz – one of Charles Dickens’s earliest works – as its inspiration. Sketching is a theatrical experiment designed to weave together the individual stories of different London traditions, problems and people to celebrate the diversity and history of our capital, while commenting on a sense of place and identity for those drawn to its flame.

Dickens’s substantial tome is an indispensable guide to nineteenth-century London, and while his various observations and creations exist largely in isolation, together Dickens creates a broad sense of the bustle and scale of the city while delving deeply into the quirky co-existence of all kinds of life within its streets, taking the reader from the humorous to the ponderous and despondent within a few pages. More recently novelists including John Lanchester in Capital and Sebastian Faulks in A Week in December have utilised the anthology approach but deliberately drawn the strands together to create a narrative drive that allows separate characters to cross paths in significant ways. Sketching falls somewhere between the two.

Much has been made of the “writers’ room” approach that Sketching has adopted from television where large multi-episode dramas and soaps use a team of writers to essentially churn out plenty of storylines while collectively retaining an eye for consistencies of character and place. Here, competition winners Aaron Douglas, Adam Hughes, Alan Gordon, Chloe Mi Lin Ewart, Ella Langley, Himanshu Ojha, Naomi Westerman and Sumerah Srivastav have worked alongside Graham to produce the 12 attributable stories listed in the programme.

In many ways Sketching is a vast undertaking, attempting to marry nine individual voices in a single two-hour show, created in less than 12 weeks, with the group only meeting for the first time at the launch event in early July. Perhaps expectedly with relatively little time to write, hone, cast and rehearse, the quality of the overall piece is rather variable and while some stories are consistently tied together, others float loosely around the edge of a show that hasn’t quite decided if it wants to be a series of exploratory “sketches” or a fully integrated drama. Graham constructs a play better than almost anyone, and Sketching’s episodic frame feels like the right approach, scattering scenes from several of the core strands across the production to drive the drama. His own story ‘Peter Piper has a Plan’ is the backbone of the show, uniting some of the disparate elements while adding a small sense of jeopardy to proceedings.

Newly released from prison, Peter Piper is the criminal mastermind behind a dastardly plan to steal the internet and plunge the city into chaos. Travelling around London, Piper incites a number of crucial strikes that lead to his ultimate, and rather surprising, objective. Its initial Tower of London location is reminiscent of Moriarty’s equally crazed bid for power in season two of Sherlock, yet, squeezed for time, the consequences rather fizzle out. Graham’s solid narrative arc allows Peter to interact with a number of other stories and London traditions, which in Samuel James’s sinister performance creates some genuine audience investment. Given more time, this has the potential to be a fascinating study of the multivariant effects of destruction that Peter single-handedly manufactures.

Of the stories attributed to the Writers’ Room, only four have an identifiable stake in show. The strongest comes from Alan Gordon who makes his professional debut with ‘The Emancipation of Shona Bell-e’ about a Scottish Drag Queen who finds herself trapped in a London flat with Kevin who refuses to go outside. Living solely through her fans on the internet, the tension rises between them as cabin fever sets in. It doesn’t connect to the main Peter Piper story, but with another notable and exuberant performance from Samuel James as Shona, supported by Sean Michael Verey’s quietly troubled Kevin, this sensitive piece has much to say about the loneliness of London and the pressure to hide your true self to fit in.

But time prevents a few of the stories from reaching their full potential. Himanshu Ojha’s ‘The Hand of Hozan’ is another pillar of the show with an intriguing twist as a probationary police officer works with a sewage worker to uncover the origins of a mysterious severed hand, using flashbacks to replay the significant moments of Hozan’s life.  Sumerah Srivastav’s ‘Mo’s Second Hand Shop’ has a very different central character with lots of possibilities but is so briefly shown in the first half that the major reveal in Act Two feels too sudden and underdeveloped, despite an eleventh hour tie-in with Ojha’s story.

Naomi Westerman’s ‘The Conceptual Artist’ concerns a homeless lesbian couple who take over an empty mansion in Kensington only for one of them to be mistaken for an artist. Westerman comments on the vapid nature of fame, greed and the nonsense of London housing but tonally feels divorced from the rest of the show. A promising sequence about a Billingsgate fishmonger (Samuel James again) who aptly comments that the financial district is built on invisible stock unlike his business that has tangible products to sell has considerable scope for development, with a rather pointed statement to make about the nature and skewed importance of the banking industry to London’s sustainability. Yet the remaining Writers’ Room pieces are difficult to identify.

It’s notable, and even curious, that of the 12 stories listed in the programme four of the longest pieces that connect the show are by Graham, and it’s not at all clear if this is intentional. Alongside the central Peter Piper strand, Graham also contributes ‘The Widow and the Songbird’ about a rare nightingale encounter which has the potential to be quite poignant, ‘A Rebellion in Theatreland’ focusing on mutinous stage door keepers which deserves expansion, and the weak ‘Katie and Tom Try to Move On’, an over-wordy recurring story which, despite a clever ending, fails to convince as a long-parted couple agonise over their feelings for one another, poorly performed by Verey and Sophie Wu. As a test case for collective approaches to theatre writing that create opportunity for diversity Sketching is clearly an important step forward, and while many of the stories are interesting, at times the show feels as though it has been patched-up or rescued by its senior writer.

Sketching is a solid evening, but lacking polish it never quite moves beyond a series of possibilities. It entertains in part, and genuinely engages in others, yet its multi-writer format pulls its structure in different directions; on the one hand it actively overlaps narratives and characters to create a coherent drama but also takes the Dicken’s approach with several sketches that exist in isolation, making for a slightly unsatisfactory and inconsistent whole. That variation extends to the show’s presentation as narrators actively link passages together, speaking directly to the audience, while alternatively scenes and Dicken’s quotes bleed into one another without any external commentary. It’s never clear if we are being guided to particular experiences of London to make a specific point, or whether snatches of life are presented as they exist for the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Ellan Parry’s simple design allows the actors to swiftly merge into dozens of characters with just a change of hat or coat, and the minimal approach to staging helps us to conjure a variety of locations in an instant. Yet Parry has added a high rigged table to connect the upper and lower parts of the Wilton stage. Much of the action takes place on this raised and titled platform that gives a good view from the circle but results in neck ache for the front stalls – what this odd structure is meant to represent or facilitate is less clear. Thankfully, Daniel Denton’s beautiful video projections reinforce the title with a series of black and white sketches inspired by mid-century French styles, providing a simple but meaningful backdrop of locations, maps and animation that add a touch of magic to the overall effect.

Sketching is certainly an interesting test case and the fact it exists at all is probably more important than its content. Along with Graham’s passionate advocation of arts education and desire to offer the same mentoring support he received as a young writer, whether Sketching is a good play is secondary to its importance as a political statement about access for new and diverse voices. There are some really strong ideas here and a lot of talent among the Writers’ Room but space to develop is lacking in a show that needs to include too much. The consequence of running a competition means each ‘winner’ must be heard and the weaker ideas cannot be jettisoned to create space for the stronger to thrive.

That’s not to say that collective approaches to theatre writing cannot be successful, and indeed elements of Sketching prove they can be, but the overall outcome needs to be more streamlined, limiting the focus to five or six stronger stories co-written by the group, Alternatively an entirely anthological approach could work with a tighter theme; London is a big sprawling city heaving with stories, but the breadth of the responses to that makes it harder to weave into a single, consistent and meaningful evening of theatre.

Sketching is very much a work in progress, both in the career development of the collective writers as a stepping stone to the demands and expectations of professional theatre, and in the construction and refinement of new modes of creating. Given more time and focus, a Writers’ Room model would be an interesting one to replicate, changing the nature of individualist theatre writing. Sketching is a show that doesn’t feel quite ready for its audience, but it is an important marker for the sector, a chance to think more broadly and even radically about routes to access, opportunity and perspective that can open the door to new voices.

Sketching is at Wilton’s Music Hall until 28 October with tickets from £9-£33. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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