Monthly Archives: April 2019

Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre

Rosmersholm - Duke of York's Theatre

The pursuit of great roles for women has driven much recent theatre discussion but relatively little action in the last two years, and despite the global impact of the #MeToo movement, male-centric dramas by male writers are still by far the norm. New works including The Writer and Dance Nation at the Almeida as well as the West End success of Nine Night, Emilia and Home, I’m Darling are gaining ground, putting diverse female stories centre stage. But revivals are just as vital to the continued success of the West End, which seem to limit the roles for women, but perhaps we’re just not commissioning the right plays.

Shakespeare may have left few truly great parts for women, but elsewhere the classical canon is full of substantial leading ladies, particularly in works written a hundred or so years ago when arguably the theatrical landscape was more progressive than it seems now. There has been renewed interest in late nineteenth and early-twentieth century dramatists at fringe theatres across London – D H Lawrence’s play The Daughter-in-Law was revived brilliantly at the Arcola last year, while the forgotten St John Ervine’s fascinating Jane Clegg is currently playing at the Finborough Theatre. Both wrote plenty of nuanced, self-sufficient women discovering a desire for freedom from the mores of marriage and family that set them on the path to a new kind of intellectual and spiritual emancipation. Chekhov and later Tennessee Williams also wrote complex, messy female characters that burn with all kinds of emotion, but it was Ibsen who truly mastered the female voice.

Many of Ibsen’s major plays focus on female self-discovery, on the stripping away of surface notions of politics, societal expectation and often their own personality delusions to achieve an undeniable awareness. The tragedy for these characters is being trapped in an era that prevents their easy escape from the artifice of their lives, the feet of clay and fear of scandal that crushes any hope of true liberation. The eponymous protagonist of Hedda Gabler, Nora in A Doll’s House even Helen Alving in Ghosts must all confront the reality they hide from and face the inevitable future that follows. In Rosmersholm, Ibsen created one of his greatest and most ambiguous heroines, leaving you wondering just who is Rebecca West?

This rarely seen drama, now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre, sits at an intriguing moment between old and new, the eve of an election which the occupants of Rosmersholm manor house hope will usher in a radical new era of equality and fairness. The play opens with a Spring-like freshness, as live-in companion Rebecca West orders the removal of the shutters and dust sheets from the room overlooking the mill that has remained unused since the suicide of Rosmer’s wife a year before. With Neil Austin’s lighting design sending beams of light through the reopened windows and Rae Smith dressing the set with baskets of freshly cut wild flowers, there is hope and opportunity for all kinds of new beginnings.

In Ian Rickson’s controlled production, that optimism barely lasts beyond dinner as former-Pastor Rosmer confesses to his brother-in-law the Governor that he has lost his faith and has been radicalised by Rebecca. Throughout the play there are references to different kinds of manipulation and the various interpretations of truth that Ibsen observes in society; both the radical newspaper and the traditional government seek the endorsement of the church to guarantee their victory, attempting to coerce Rosmer to their cause despite the clear abandonment of his faith and the open artlessness of his own character – the appearance of fact, Ibsen rather pointedly suggests, is enough to fool the public into believing it, a resonance not lost on a modern audience.

But there are also personal manipulations at play which eventually draws Rebecca into the spotlight. Ibsen is a very smart dramatist and while the viewer may want a conversation between her and Rosmer, Ibsen makes us wait until Act III for anything of substance, by which time we have been asked to consider the context of their lives, the nature of their involvement and, crucially, to view both of them as reasonable, decent people misunderstood by the outside world. What happens so brilliantly in the second half of this production is the slow unravelling of that certainty, leaving us to question how healthy their influence over each other is and, as Rebecca most crucially asks in the play’s final moments, “is it you that go with me, or I that go with you?”

As the story unfolds, what Rickson’s interpretation emphasises is the idea that the past and the future cannot be uncoupled, that whatever we are and want to be will always be connected to, and to some degree, held back by our heritage. The importance of Rosmersholm as a building in the community, as a rallying point, as a marker of stability as well as the value of the Rosmer family name is referenced many times, and while John Rosmer cares little for it at the start of the play, over the course of four acts the weight of that history, of living-up to the exploits of all those portraits on the wall starts to pull him back while a physical connection to the house itself also invades Rebecca’s certainty.

There are no half-measures with a Hayley Atwell performance, and as an actor she has a unique ability to convey truth, to inhabit her characters completely. There are so many layers to Rebecca West, and she has found them all without ever losing her essential ambiguity as questions about her possibly poisonous influence on Rosmer drive the drama. In the early scenes, there is a certainty and directness with a firm grasp of the household business, while repeatedly urging Rosmer to tell Kroll the truth about his changing views. Its subtly done, an almost wifely or motherly control that only in retrospect, once we hear the Governor’s perspective, suggests her puppet-mastery.

But Ibsen ensures that Rebecca is no obvious villain, unfolding aspects of her backstory and the acquaintance with the Rosmers at key moments that not only enlighten the audience but come even as a surprise to her. As we focus entirely on Rebecca in the second half of the play, Atwell’s performance grows in stature, responding to revelations and accusations with shock but also a fierce determination to live a life free of externally-imposed rules. Her monologue in Act III that expounds her decision to eschew the trappings of family and love is passionately and meaningfully delivered, a classic Ibsen woman raging against attempts to cage her.

Self-realisation is the focus of the final Act and Atwell superbly conveys the effect of this new understanding as Rebecca’s intellectual determination is somehow betrayed by the biology she has long sought to control. The fresh understanding of her effect at Rosmersholm and particularly on its owner brings an overwhelming guilt that leads to a final dramatic revelation and a sacrificial act the truth of which Atwell leaves the audience to determine. Atwell’s ability to suggest strength and frailty at the same time is terrific, so whether Rebecca is a truly good woman ahead of her time or a force to destroy traditions and people she doesn’t understand remains purposefully and provocatively unanswered.

By contrast, Tom Burke’s Rosmer is a shade of a man, a character weakened by a grief and guilt he cannot truly fathom. It is a very skilful performance from Burke to suggest a mind so easily influenced, politically fervent one minute and wavering the next, while subtly introducing what seems to be an emotional break-down. Rosmer dominates the action in Acts I and II, apparently in control of his mind and implying that his friendship with Rebecca has released him from the burden of his ever-visible ancestry and importantly from the restrictive confines of his faith – intrinsic to the fabric of local society against which his new-found atheism sets him at odds.

It is only later in light of our shifting perspective on Rebecca that we come to see Rosmer differently, as a man emotionally paralysed by his wife’s earlier suicide and, in Burke’s well controlled performance, in the grip of a grief-driven madness that creates a fervency in his political views and potentially his feeling for Rebecca which may be a mere delusion of his survivor’s guilt. The Hamlet parallels come thick and fast, not just in an explosive moment in Act III as Rosmer thrusts flowers into the hands of his servants as he apologises for his own prolongation of the feudal system, but also in the low-key emotional crash which follows as Burke’s Rosmer finds himself unable to take the decisive step he craves, his courage failing him as the past reasserts its control over his present.

Rosmer is a quiet character with an essential weakness, looking to Rebecca at the end of Act II and on into Acts III and IV to lead him forward which Burke conveys extremely well. Like Atwell, Burke becomes his characters so convincingly that the relationship between them is incredibly involving, the longed-for duologues that dominate the second half of the play are enthralling as they face not just their feeling for each other but also the political, social and reputational cost of their past, current and future relationship.

Giles Terera’s Governor captures the upstanding but fearful nature of the local politician, desperate to save his friend from himself while ensuring his own electability. Though dressed as concern for his deceased sister, it matters that Ibsen choses the eve of the election to send Professor Kroll to the house for the first time in a year while clearly he has used his influence to discover more about Rebecca. Kroll changes his opinion of her, railing when she’s out of the room, but more forgiving in her presence, suggesting perhaps an admiration for her determination and how effectively her personal attributes work on him despite his determination to resist them.

If Rickson’s production has one failing it is the curious inclusion of Rosmer’s former tutor Ulrik Brendel whose reappearance lends credit to the notion that the landlord had radical sympathies before he knew Rebecca, but Peter Wright’s rather conscious performance as the teacher-turned-philosophising tramp feels more like a court jester than a firebrand living beyond social law. The character seems superfluous here, adding little to the drama, with his bigger performance derailing the fragile balance of the scene, particularly in the very powerful final conversation between the leads.

Rosmersholm is rarely seen these days but it is a play with a pertinent political and social commentary that clearly justifies this new revival. These resonances are a little on the nose at times, but murmurs of recognition sweep across the audience as characters discuss the deceptive nature of elections, as well as the duties of class and legacy. Hayley Atwell’s multi-layered and charismatic central performance shows that Rebecca West is a heroine like no other, refusing to be shackled by a society that seeks to contain her. Most importantly Rickson’s gripping production suggests that great female roles are to be found among the classics if only we look hard enough.

Rosmersholm is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 20 July with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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All My Sons – The Old Vic

All My Sons - Old Vic

For fans of Arthur Miller, spring has brought a clutch of new productions to the West End with several theatres  scheduling shows in quick succession, offering audiences a chance to see less well-known work as well as exciting new revivals of his most famous plays. While The Price was well received at the Wyndhams,  Miller’s late piece The American Clock about the Great Depression at the Old Vic failed to illuminate one of the writers most disappointing plays. Miller’s best work, however, was always about families and the ways in which the American Dream, the forces of modern US history and social expectation play out among the confined dynamics of a single household.

Now half-way through this mini-Miller season, and with that in mind, Marianne Elliott’s much anticipated adaptation of Death of a Salesman set in an African American household opens shortly at the Young Vic and looks set to bring new meaning to this well-worn play. This week the Old Vic presents its new version of All My Sons to the press, a production that boasts three significant debuts – Hollywood and Broadway elite Sally Field and Bill Pullman make their first West End appearance as does Jenna Coleman essentially working on her first professional play. Colin Morgan is virtually a West End veteran by comparison undertaking his second major role in under a year (having played the lead in Translations at the National last May).

Set in 1947, All My Sons is a story about the long shadow of conflict and one family’s inability to move-on from the death of their eldest son in combat until truths are heard and a final reckoning occurs. These are major themes in Miller’s work as personal delusions must be shattered so that a purer world can emerge, one in which the younger generation can live free of the guilt of their parents who must accept responsibility for the world they have created, one often driven more by commerce than duty. All My Sons is a tragedy in the truest theatrical sense, as flawed characters must recognise their folly and atone for the devastation they cause, something which director Jeremy Herrin manages adroitly as his production builds to its powerful and inevitable finale.

But as the curtain rises on Max Jones’s charming garden set, the Keller house looms into view, indicating right from the start that this seemingly beautiful home is a trap for each of the characters we are about to meet, the manifestation of patriarch Joe’s need to provide for his family, but with a stranglehold that prevents any of them from truly moving on. Still mourning the death of their son Larry – or in wife Kate’s view refusing to accept his death – the family are frozen by the events of their past, the apple tree snapped in half by the storm denoting a rotten emptiness beneath Jones’s verdant design, one that mirrors Joe’s character, the surface decency stripped away as the story unfolds.

The cost of war hangs heavy over this lush scene and in Herrin’s meaningful production a clear divide is drawn between the men who fought and the much-hated war profiteers, in this case carving the Keller family right down the middle. The three core young men in the play – Larry, Chris and Ann’s brother George – are all veterans, risking death and injury for their country which creates an idealism in Chris particularly about the kind of world they fought to protect. Their military service is subtly referenced but it stands in stark contrast to the concerns of businessman Joe, building a firm from scratch and, after the accusations against him are dispelled, taking pride in resuming his place in the neighbourhood and his profit margin. Miller actively asks the audience whether these two things have the same societal value, a question which drives the play’s powerful conclusion. Miller is drawing a clear line between the experience of former servicemen and the civilians who will never understand.

There is a shifting notion of heroism in Herrin’s production, not just in the idea of servicemen dying in battle and this tangible concept of societal duty that underscores the central drama, but it is also there in the relationships between father and son – another major Miller theme – as Chris is forced to readjust his devoted admiration for Joe in light of the play’s various revelations. The result is affectingly portrayed here as the external perception of Joe and his own self-image are fundamentally destroyed. What makes this so illuminating a proposition is that unlike the idealistic Chris living in a bubble of family protection, Miller reveals that the secondary characters, neighbours and friends were never fooled, that there is a complicity in the knowledge that Joe had cheated the system for his own ends, showing him and this perfect enclave of rural America to be a far grubbier proposition, pitting this against the suggested purity of the younger generation dying in battle to preserve a country that  betrayed them.

The faces Joe shows to his family and to the world are clearly quite different and those layers are what make Pullman’s performance so fascinating. As an actor, his creations often have an essential decency through their core that makes them generally admirable, whether he’s playing the bumbling lover in rom-com While You Were Sleeping, US President in Independence Day or surly detective in The Sinner, there is an essential humanity and compassion in the characters he chooses. Here, Pullman uses our expectation to his advantage, blindsiding the audience with Joe’s surface charm. When we first meet him, he’s relaxing in the garden, light and friendly with his neighbours, devoted to his son, the very image of man at ease with himself and the life he’s worked hard to build. But there is something under the surface that subtly takes over Pullman’s performance. You hardly notice it at first, only that his son never returns the physical affection Joe shows him, there is a barely perceptible barrier keeping them apart.

Joe’s determination to ignore Kate’s ravings for her lost son, his frustration with neighbour Frank for humouring her with a horoscope to prove Larry must still be alive, and later his momentary loss of temper slowly builds a picture of a different man to the one we’ve seen. Pullman is excellent in conveying the slow emergence of Joe’s commercial and unforgiving inner self, the artful manipulation of those around him to conceal the truth and the gradual realignment of the audience’s perspective on him. Yet the performance is still full of pathos, particularly in the closing scenes when he must confront his crumbling self-assurance while clinging to the excuse of family prosperity. The power of the play’s finale moments is testament to the conflicted complexity that Pullman has found in Miller’s hugely flawed but engagingly multi-layered character.

In the same vein Kate’s illusions must also be shattered in order for this contaminated past to be left behind, a place where only by facing the truth can the characters be free to live as Kate urges Chris in the play’s final moments. Sally Field is exceptionally good as Kate in an incredibly difficult role that must make the nervy emotionalism of a desperate mother somehow credible without seeming too histrionic which Field does with ease. Her Kate is at a fever pitch from the start, fussily anxious about Ann’s unexpected return and the consequences for her family while clinging harder than ever to the certainty of Larry’s eventual return.

What Field does so well is balance the extremes of Kate’s behaviour, making her a frustrating person for Chris and Joe to manage, while retaining a deep sympathy for a woman who has devoted her life to being a wife and mother – a maternal warmth that equally welcomes the temporary return of George with genuine affection – and now unable to accept the failure of her own dreams for herself and for them. Her delusion makes her occasionally cruel, especially to Ann but also to Chris with whom she also remains at a slight distance, while the final reckoning is devastatingly played by Field as the truth finally overwhelms her.

Colin Morgan as son Chris is the innocent in the play, reacting to the revelations and sudden shifts that affect the lives of his parents. As an all-American boy who served his country and returned to the family business, Morgan pitches his performance somewhere between Marlon Brando and James Dean, a young man keen to embrace the future with a marriage inspired by the happiness of his parents but frustrated by the general pretence that the war never happened. Of all the characters Chris is most eager for truth and a new beginning but still craves the familiarity of home which Morgan evokes well.

As the most idealistic character, we start to see other, more critical, perspectives on Chris as the story unfolds so Morgan inserts a slight ambiguity into the relationship with Joe, a discomfort when hugged or touched by his father implying, at least a subconscious implication, of his father’s deception that aligns with the neighbour’s view of Chris’s possible complicity. Although Morgan’s accent gets a little thicker in the final act as Chris’s emotional state heightens, his performance suggests interesting questions about what he really knew and whether pursuing his brother’s fiancée is a chance to make amends for his family’s crimes. Is Chris more like his mother than he realises, refusing to believe something he knows to be true, eventually forced to confront his own failure to act.

Jenna Coleman makes an impressive stage debut as Ann, the catalyst for change in the Keller family, convincingly capturing the frustration and forward-looking desire of a woman expected to mourn her dead fiancé forever. Her affection for the Keller family is clear along with the need to return from the anonymous city to a place that signifies home and comfort, something she hopes a life with Chris will restore to her. Equally her brother George, played extremely well by Oliver Johnstone, has the most dramatic scene, full of rage and injustice as he sweeps in determined to rectify the past. Also a war veteran, Johnstone implies a slight limp, and uses his small but pivotal role to reinforce the loss of innocence that Miller is writing about in this Eden-like garden, where George is tempted for a few seconds by the warmth of the Keller family and his own long departed memory of childhood happiness.

Herrin controls the unfolding story very carefully, the slow sense of unease growing through the long lazy summer day of Act One, building to an edge-of-your-seat tension as the drama unfolds in Act Two and Three. With Death of a Salesman opening soon, and two of Hollywood’s finest actors making a welcome and impressive West End debut here in All My Sons, spring is proving to be quite the treat for Miller fans. With compelling performances from the four leads this production of All My Sons fulfils its promise, a gripping Miller tragedy that concludes with a lasting sense of devastation.

All My Sons is at the Old Vic until 8 June with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Three Sisters – Almeida Theatre

Three Sisters - The Almeida

Across the creative industries the right collaborations can yield huge rewards and finding the right person to work with can result in years of success. Long-standing partnerships are more common than you might realise, designer Soutra Gilmour and director Jamie Lloyd have worked together not just on the recent Pinter season but on countless productions before that and will be tackling Evita together in Regent’s Park in August. At last week’s Olivier Awards, director Marianne Elliott and her collaborative designer Bunny Christie walked away with an armful of awards for Company following previous international success with Angels in America and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but they weren’t the only partnership clutching trophies.

Last year, Director Rebecca Frecknall and actor Patsy Ferran joined forces for the Almeida’s Summer and Smoke, a new alliance that last March produced a striking and emotive production of one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser-known plays. A West End transfer followed in the autumn and, last week, two Olivier awards for Best Revival and Best Actress – a notable achievement for two early-career theatre-makers. Just over a year since it opened, and days after their Olivier victories, expectant eyes now turn to the Almeida once more where their new production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters has started previews before facing the press tomorrow.

In recent years, traditional approaches to staging classic plays have been swept away, removing cluttered sets and stuffy costumes to allow the human stories to resonate more forcefully with an audience. While period-specific adaptations still occur, some of the most successful productions in recent memory have freed themselves from the confinement of place and time to focus on the psychology and emotional experience of the characters. van Hove’s approach to Ibsen and Miller, the National Theatre’s Chekhov trilogy, and now Frecknall’s own treatment of Williams and Chekhov have eschewed heavy sets and instead drawn from the writer’s creation of atmospheric suffocation and inevitable devastation within the text.

Three Sisters like much of Chekhov’s work is a rural story of isolation, loneliness and stunted dreams in which the glittering possibility of city life and freedom of intellectual expression weigh heavy on characters unable to escape their present circumstances. Few Directors have such a meaningful grasp of a play’s emotional beat as Frecknall, and in her production the competing frustrations of one family and the surrounding townsfolk ebb and flow as years and opportunities slip away from them. In this minimally-staged approach Chekhov’s comment on the erosion of knowledge and the individual unhappiness it subsequently causes sits alongside philosophical discussions on the rights to happiness and the creation of a better future.

And you feel those emotional beats from the start as Frecknall and writer Cordelia Lynn frame the drama with the funeral of the beloved patriarch. The stage is set with rows of chairs and a single piano, both – like Summer and Smoke – have a symbolic quality that underscores the drama. This proliferation of furniture represents the emotional clutter at the start of the play, the many obstacles standing between the family and their desired migration to Moscow. At Irina’s name-day celebration that marks the first scene, most of the characters are on stage, a reasonably happy occasion full of expectation, hope and possibility with this still young family mixing contentedly with the locals and stationed military officers.

But Frecknall ensures that the undercurrents subtly make themselves known through the positioning of brother Andrey on a shelf-like platform behind the stage suggesting not only his own semi-separation from his siblings but also the extent to which his actions will soon dominate and determine the outcome of all their lives; first in the expectation that his Professorship will allow the siblings to relocate to the city, and later through his ill-starred marriage to the prickly Natasha – note too that as her influence grows in later scenes, she physically assumes his place watching-over the household.

The slow removal of chairs from the stage throughout Act One represents the characters’ move towards self-realisation during the four years of the play, as they come to accept the difference between the dreams they harbour for the future, their own self-delusions that sustain them and the crushing reality that shatters these illusions. And while Summer and Smoke used a collection of pianos to add musical emphasis at key moments, here there is only one which remains unused throughout, embodying Irina and Masha’s comments on their livs being like an unplayed piano, a crucial insight into Masha in particular and the outpouring of emotion her affair with Vershinin unleashes. The closed and soundless piano comes to represent the shutting down of the female bodies in the play where marriage is a much a barrier to Masha’s happiness as purposeless maidenhood is for Olga and Irina.

Three Sisters is a story with many different currents and Frecknall emphasises the youth of her characters in the early part of the play as the Sergeyevich family – all under 30 – mix with the equally youthful townsfolk and soldiers. Older characters are present, but you feel the youthful surge of hope and of a different kind of future before real responsibility and burden make their mark. One of this production’s most interesting attributes is watching that shift as the story’s various entanglements play out; first we see Vershinin’s growing despair at the drastic behaviour of his mentally unwell wife and the pressure on his two young daughters (none of whom we see), and the audience must take their cues from Vershinin’s  world-weariness despite being only a little more than a decade older than the family. Likewise, the frustrations inherent in both Masha and Andrey’s marriages show how quickly the optimism of romance sours into regret, bitterness and, in both cases, reckless attempts to escape their confinement.

As events play out, the oldest characters come more sharply into focus, so that when the now somewhat eroded Irina turns to the Doctor for comfort four years and four Acts after her celebratory name-day, he too is unable to provide any solace that life becomes more explicable or navigable as he sinks once more into alcoholism and depression. Even the small role of Anfisa the servant, a much-discussed figure, becomes too old to be of use to the hard-hearted Natasha, a bone of contention with the kinder Olga. Frecknall’s meaningful inter-generational drama shows age as a series of disappointments and eventual disposal – perhaps the philosophising Vershinin is right and the only meaning in life is to live in the hope that someone else’s future will be better.

Surprisingly, eldest sister Olga (always dressed in blue) is the least substantial of the roles, appearing in far fewer scenes than her sisters. Ferran is excellent as the reluctant schoolmistress cast aside at 28 with no question of marriage, only a career she doesn’t want. It’s a subtle performance from Ferran who, with less stage time, infers much about Olga’s role as pseudo-matriarch, trying to protect her sisters and silently keeping the household together, while clearly struggling with the expected self-sacrifice, duty and the reliance of others.

While Ferran is the show’s biggest draw, it is Pearl Chanda whose performance as the asphyxiated Masha that you will remember, along with Peter McDonald’s sensitive and affecting Vershinin. Their relationship is one of the production’s most exciting and beautifully rendered storylines, charting a slow falling in love that overwhelms them both, realising only too late how devotedly attached they have become. It begins gently, a look, a preference for each other’s conversation and a tendency to gravitate towards one another without consciously realising it. As time leaps forward with each Act so too does the depth of their passion and reliance on one another to keep afloat in spite of their terrible marriages, an intimacy that Frecknall skilfully extracts from her actors.

With a notable role in Ink as the first Page Three girl, Chanda’s Masha is detached, cynical and coldly withdrawn from the husband she now considers a fool. Permanently in black, she is a dark presence at most family gatherings, suggesting a jaded depression far beyond her 24-years. Yet, the affair with Vershinin creates a kind of hope, transforming her into a warm and vital woman whenever he is in the room. The connection between them is electrifyingly portrayed by McDonald and Chanda, far more than lust, there is a true meeting of souls that lights them both so even in the background their intimacy and happiness in each other’s company is manifold, full of shy smiles and a need to seek each other’s eyes.

McDonald is equally empathetic, delivering his philosophical speeches and declarations of love with credulity and passion. There is an inner torment that McDonald elicits well, driven by the pain of his wife’s problems and the strain of caring for his family. The freedom Vershinin experiences with Masha is genuinely lovely, despite its adulterous nature, and its essential tragedy makes their stolen moments so moving. When the inevitable occurs in Act Four, its all the more affecting for being the most demonstrative either has been in public, and while McDonald’s Vershinin tries to retain a manly dignity, the crumbling of Chanda’s Masha is genuinely powerful.

A similar experience of snatched dreams affects the rest of the family; the development of youngest sister Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz – always in white) is engagingly handled as we see her grow from a childish 20-year old into a sadly resigned woman of 24, trying to balance the pressure to marry with a desire for independent work as the family dreams of Moscow come apart. Her collection of potential lovers are, however, thinly sketched and hard to keep track of in a busy show which does draw some power from what should be a dramatic finale.

Freddie Meredith finds all of Andrey’s weaknesses as the head of a household who actively separates himself from it. His self-inflicted decline has much to say about the hollow nature of power in rural masculinity, while Lois Chimimba captures all of Natasha’s foibles as a local girl determined to punish and dominate a family who despise her lack of intellect. Laura Hunt’s decision to dress her in pink and green throughout after Olga criticises the combination is an inspired choice that reveals so much about Natasha’s destructive resentment.

A production has to do a lot to earn a three-hour run time and this new version of Three Sisters very nearly does. The first couple of Acts fly by, full of gripping narrative and, surprisingly for Chekhov, plenty of comedy largely provided by Masha’s silly but ardent husband Fyodor (Elliot Levey). Aspect of the last Act aren’t yet fulfilling their dramatic potential, partly because Irina’s various suitors never properly come into focus and their encounter is a large driver for the finale, but also the various comings and goings from the stage mean that, other than the Masha-Vershinin parting, the conclusion doesn’t feel as cataclysmic for everyone else as perhaps it could.

Following up on the heart-stoppingly beautiful Summer and Smoke was never going to be easy, partly that’s because the latter was just one of those extraordinary theatre moments where everything comes alive, but there are also differences between the writing styles of Chekhov and Williams  – they certainly have themes in common but express them and the emotional vulnerability of their characters quite differently. If perhaps Three Sisters isn’t quite as ravishing as Frecknall and Ferran’s first collaboration then that’s hardly a criticism, it is still a vibrant and meaningful interpretation of Chekhov that reaps rewards. Keep on an eye on this new theatre partnership, it could be around for many years to come.

Three Sisters is at the Almeida until 25 May with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Nigel Slater’s Toast – The Other Palace

Nigel Slater's Toast - The Other Palace

The memories we have of our childhoods are often light and incomplete, we hold-on to emotional responses, particularly good or bad moments like the endless and warm days of summer, holidays by the seaside, snowy Christmases that probably never happened, and perhaps the odd school-based humiliation. But, with our (then) limited knowledge of the adult world, the truth of those years is somewhat more elusive, the struggles of our parents, the political and cultural experience of the times and any sense of danger or national change happening around us. Instead, childhood, for most of us, always seems like a golden age until suddenly it’s not.

There comes a point in every childhood where everything changes, for most people its during their teenage years but often for terrible reasons some experience a lurch into the adult world far sooner than they expected. Chef Nigel Slater knew that better than most when his beloved mother died on Christmas morning when he was just 10-years old. His 2003 bestselling memoir Toast recounts the circumstances before and after that crucial moment as young Nigel inherits a passion for cooking in a seemingly perfect 50s kitchen before that fateful festive period. Exploring the world of the Slater family in Wolverhampton through the food that they shared, the memoir has been dramatised by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Jonnie Riordan. It debuted on The Lowry stage in Salford and later the Edinburgh Festival last year, before receiving a London transfer to The Other Palace where it officially opens tomorrow. Smartly adapted by Filloux-Bennett, this is a show that will warm you through without disguising its darker flavours, a satisfying and hearty concoction that sees the world through the eyes of a child.

Told almost entirely from Nigel’s perspective – and he actively chides his father for trying to muscle in on narrative duties – Toast is a delightful meta-theatrical experience in which the audience is not only asked to understand the world of its characters and their differing perspectives, there is also the chance to eat along without leaving your seat. A multisensory production, in the first Act bags of sweets are distributed around the audience, followed by Walnut Whips during the interval to save for an important scene in Act Two, and later trays of mini-Lemon Meringue Pies.

It’s a delicious surprise that certainly adds an additional dimension to the experience, and don’t worry if you’re seated at the back, the cast and diligent ushers do their best to ensure everyone receives some free goodies in a well-executed piece of audience engagement. Yet, in medium-sized venue like The Other Palace it does have its drawbacks; if you’re annoyed generally by the crinkling of sweet wrappers in the theatre, the ripple effect of the first handout may be frustrating as it last for the next 15-20 minutes of the show.

And while we get to enjoy tastes along with the characters, it equally pulls the audience temporarily out of the story while they await food items to be passed along the row to them. The time taken to settle back down encroaches on the often more emotional scene that follows, and closer to the back of the room, it can be harder to hear over the uniform rustling of wrappers and conversational exchanges between neighbours rooting-out the sweets they want. Even in the second Act, Walnut Whips already in hand, lots of people are waiting for the appropriate scene to eat it, giving rise to an audible relief when it eventually occurs. It is a smart and lovely idea but there are consequences for audience concentration and the flow of the ensuing story.

Nonetheless, what stands out in the sensitive retelling of this tragic memoir is the imaginative technical solutions to how content is presented and the smoothly management of scene changes. Designer Libby Watson has created an idealised 50s world of pale-yellow perfection. Anyone who has seen Laura Wade’s Olivier Award-winning Home, I’m Darling, will recognise the themes Watson draws upon – utility, grace and finesse – in which culinary objects have their place, everything is sparkling clean and beautifully appointed.

A number of moveable cabinets on castors, as well as rapidly removed furniture allow Riordan to move swiftly between a series of locations including Nigel’s school, restaurants, two different homes and eventually a side alley of The Savoy. As choreographer as well as director, Riordan uses movement to underscore poignant moments and to suggest the passing of time, with a counter-top waltz between mother and son meaningfully handled, as well as second wife Joan’s domestic domination told through a montage of vacuum and polishing actions set to music and sound effects.

There are musical theatre qualities to this approach that work extremely well here while also emphasising the difference between childhood fantasy and adult reality that runs through the story. But they never distract from Toast’s darker moments, in fact they deepen them. Music has the same effect and while Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s selection of 50s tunes played throughout the show as well as during the interval are a nostalgic treat, their inclusion is equally designed to pull at Nigel’s consciously created fantasy childhood, one that splits apart as the truth slowly dawns in his teenage years, at which point the music choices take on a harder quality in the final third of the show.

The Slater household is never flashy, but always homely, a welcoming upper-working class / lower middle-class vision bolstered by the idea of the perfect housewife running the home immaculately while her husband works. As with Wade’s play, that image is not quite right and as the story unfolds Filloux-Bennett cleverly explores the differences between Nigel’s narration and the adult reality from which he was largely shielded. As his mum’s illness becomes more serious, it’s clear to the audience that 10-year old Nigel has no idea what was about to happen. Later, when his dad takes a second wife, Nigel is at first bemused to be at a dinner he doesn’t realise was a date, leading-in to Joan becoming what he thinks is the cleaner. Nigel’s induction into the complexities of adult relationships is carefully managed in Act Two, slowly building as Nigel finds himself in unexpected competition not just with Joan (a very funny Marie Lawrence playing a woman so clearly insecure she needs to best a teenage boy) over baking prowess, but also with his father whose brusqueness with his son stems from his own grief, finding himself in the unexpected role as widower and single father, causing eruptions of violence or threats that shatters Nigel’s formal but respected view of him.

Giles Cooper’s Nigel is an excellent narrator and although Cooper plays his protagonist between the ages of 10 and 17, he wisely chooses not to stretch the childlike characterisation too far. In a way, this acts as a reminder that it is the adult Nigel who is the conduit for this story, remembering events from many decades distance, but it also feels appropriate in the context of the story. Riordan doesn’t want us to be distracted by how well Cooper can ‘act’ these ages, but to focus on the rite of passage that Slater’s tragedy set in motion, something which Cooper manages extremely well.

There is, in his performance, an unyielding adoration for his mother that dominates the first half of the play as they enjoy happy family moments baking, shopping and even holidaying together. Their closeness and Nigel’s contentment are well conveyed, making the circumstantial switch in Act Two all the more affecting. And here Cooper is even better as Nigel recognises the extent to which his mother shielded him from the darker side of his father, the competitiveness of other people and the nuances of adult life, a knowledge forced on him by the collapse of his homelife and his father’s focus on his new wife at the expense of his scared and uncertain son. Most of all, Cooper shows how Nigel clings to the ideals his mother instilled in him, developing a strength that eventually leads him to the doorstep of a famous London hotel and the life to come.

Having Lizzie Muncy play Nigel’s mum and a number of other important female characters including his Home Economics teacher and the woman who gives him his first job in a Wolverhampton hotel kitchen is a shrewd move. It not only means a cast of just five can perform the entire play, but it suggests a certain maternal consistency to the women who set Nigel, accidentally or purposefully, on his path to future culinary fame. Muncy draws out the protective sweetness of Mum which makes Nigel’s devotion so credible, while Stephen Ventura’s Dad manages to convey the difficulty of his own position as a 50s man trying to meet social expectations of masculinity. Through his funny rules and lists (including the gender-appropriateness of particular sweets), we see that he is  unable to properly express his deeper emotions and needs. The distance with Nigel because increasingly antagonistic as Ventura subtly suggests Dad’s inability to manage his own grief and loneliness.

This cleverly staged memoir well captures the moment at which childhood ends and the more difficult transition to adult life begins while using its food-theme to build a sense of the professional Nigel Slater was to become. Free food or not, Toast is a charming two hours in the theatre that carefully presents an idealised picture of 50s life and then cuts through to its harder reality. Honest and inventive, the range of narrative and staging techniques used in Toast impressively create a highly entertaining exploration of memory and meaning.

Toast is at The Other Palace until 3 August, with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Grief is the Thing with Feathers – Barbican

Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Barbican

Grief on stage and in popular culture is rarely considered as a psychological state of its own but as a means or driver for other behaviour. Hamlet may be devastated by the loss of his father that leads to his own existential considerations of suicide but it ultimately becomes the root of his desire for revenge. Later in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff rushes to the grave of his beloved Cathy to dig up her body, as Hamlet and Laertes once grappled with the corpse of Ophelia. Even in modern culture, our perspective on grief involves sobbing widows in black veils and, often, angry arguments at the wake – where would Soap Opera funerals be without a revelatory drama and plenty of hand wringing?

But these are all just the physical trappings of mourning, the downcast eye and sullen air that Gertrude chides Hamlet for, behaviours stemming from grief but not fundamentally representative of the internal process and experience of losing a loved one. Max Porter’s 2015 novella is different, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a manifestation of the confusion, pain and self-immolation experienced by one man on the untimely death of his wife, leaving him to raise their two Primary School-aged boys. It is a complex piece of writing in which a crow comes to care for the bereaved family, told from the perspective of the Dad, children and bird that revels in its use of language and sound.

Bringing that to the stage is no easy task but Director Enda Walsh’s production, which premiered in Ireland last year and is now playing at the Barbican, creates an innovative and challenging piece of theatre that captures the multi-layered and non-linear nature of Porter’s writing. Crucial to this is the decision to make Crow a psychological rather than a physical presence, no unsatisfactory puppetry or video design but a clear personification of grief itself in which Cillian Murphy assumes the duel role of Dad and Crow, making them ostensibly the same drowning man. In doing so, this production deepens its presentation of the experience, showing how completely subsumed Dad becomes within his own mind and while his perspective has moments of lucidity, there is a general palling of the world around him, including the existence of his own children.

There’s much here that links to David Cronenberg’s 2002 film Spider which took an equally internal perspective on one man’s delusion. There the viewer re-lived recollections of the protagonist’s childhood memories, seen through his eyes, using a refracted technique to create a jumbling effect that cast doubt on the overall veracity of the narrative. With a similar idea of going into the character’s unbalanced mind, Walsh’s production uses a variety of similar techniques to create a distorting effect built around Murphy’s central performance, and utilising his skill as a physical as well as a cerebral actor.

Most notable is Will Duke’s projection that subtly charts the growing dominance of Crow in Dad’s mind, using first the concept of an old slide-show to show large-scale images of his family drawings in which Dad has reimagined his entire family with crow’s heads. As his mind succumbs further to the Crow personality, Dad physically transforms his posture, voice and manner, using a hooded dressing gown and hunched-over shape in which his arms are tucked into a pouch on his back to create pointed wings, a sinister but effective approach which looks especially ominous cast in long shadow against the expansive rear wall.

There is no doubting that this is a level of mania, one that builds as the show unfolds, the occupation of the human mind that results in increasing frenzy as the psychological effects of grief take hold. Consequently, as with Porter’s book, a lot of what is happening or said makes little sense but the overall creative effect is of a fragmented mind bucking against the ordinariness of the real man and his world, a disruptive chaos allowing him to retreat inside while everything falls around him. The central notion of an individual being pulled under is vividly created, not least in the climactic storm scene which, like a rock concert, involves Adam Silverman’s strobed lighting design ricocheting dramatically around the walls as Murphy delivers a thunderous monologue into a close-held microphone. Like the breaking of a fever, the aftermath is a return to calm and rejuvenation.

Duke’s video design is also used to underscore the play’s literary source material and Porter’s fascination with sound and poetic rhythm. In the early moments of Crow’s arrival, the words he speaks in booming voiceover are transcribed in thick black text onto the walls of Dad’s flat, they appear at interlocking angles before being obscured by thick blocks of feathery black. The effect is as though Crow is actively obscuring Dad’s mind, erasing his conscious expression by obliterating his main form of communication, through which the almost parasitical Crow takes control.

The idea of these projections as the interior of Dad’s mind is further reinforced by scenes of his dead wife, memories and videos of days out that are at first too painful to recall, and from which Dad actively turns away. But as his mind fully processes the grief, her image recurs first more strongly and then on a much larger scale, covering the wall with scenes of a windswept beach walk. United with Helen Atkinson’s sounds design in which we eventually hear Mum’s voice (played by Hattie Morahan), there is a sense of development inside Dad’s head and as he comes to terms with her loss he can once again revisit memories with a painful happiness that revives her in his mind, displacing the destructive influence of Crow with a sense of normality once more.

At the heart of all of this is a performance of some intensity by Cillian Murphy, an actor who has demonstrated considerable range across his work choices. All of the many fragments of Murphy the actor seem to distil through this performance, so we get aspects of the sinister villain who sometimes frightens his children as well as himself, the frenzied loon of comic book movies and the soulful devastation of his indie film choices. As Murphy shows, Dad is a character in some flux, trapped in his own mind, both its leader and its victim, a state which can change in a second, while the mercuriality of Murphy’s performance gives gravitas and meaning to the elaborate staging around him.

Using a small microphone as Crow, his physical energy is powerfully conveyed, scampering around the set, climbing up walls and bouncing on tables, reflecting the surge of adrenalin and vigour that can be a bodily effect of mental illness. He’s truly disturbing as the off-kilter Crow, insisting on taking-over family duties but clearly a disruptive and malevolent presence in the household. Even when you’re not sure what is really happening, Murphy radiates such a compelling power that you cannot take your eyes from him.

Murphy shares the stage with the two actors playing his sons, and here Walsh amplifies the internalisation of Dad’s grief by ensuring for a long time he barely acknowledges them. They exist as he does, but Murphy, like a sleepwalker, doesn’t register them or his responsibility for them until much later in the play. Dad/Crow gives them things to do but must also come to terms with the secondary role he has been playing in their lives until now, one that he fears he cannot manage without his wife. It isn’t until the end of the story that he is better able to reach them as a proper father, and credit to both young actors that their own performances are made to feel like Dad’s perception of them.

It is a play, like Pinter actually, that requires you to feel rather than to understand, and by unfolding the stages of grief in this unusual fashion Dad’s ultimate fragility is what comes across so strongly. Some of Murphy’s very best moments are in the lulls between manic episodes, where he cogently and with great feeling tenderly tells the audience how much he’s hurting, how much he misses the everyday objects that his wife touched, the routines of their all too brief life together and how utterly besotted he was with her every day. Here Murphy is small, quiet and broken, a man who cannot compute how significantly his life has been upturned but clearly too weak to fight the arrival of Crow and the loss of mental control that follows.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers is never any easy watch nor a cosy night at the theatre. If you’ve never read Porter’s part novel, part poem and go expecting a conventional play about the trappings of grief, then Walsh’s adaptation will be heavy going, resistant as it is the conventions and logic of narrative form. Nor is it a straightforwardly emotional experience, you won’t come away sobbing for this family and, although there are moments of great pain a lot of it is impressionistic – this is really challenging stuff. Yet, real experiences of loss are far more complex than popular culture might suggest and through Murphy’s impactful performance we are given a glimpse of a man struggling with the psychological effects of grief and learning to find a way forward.

Grief is a Thing with Feathers is at the Barbican until 13 April but currently sold out so check regularly for returns. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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