Monthly Archives: May 2020

Streetcars, Smoke and Southern Belles: Contemporary Approaches to Tennessee Williams

Summer and Smoke Streetcar and Glass Menagerie

In the week that National Theatre at Home broadcasts the Young Vic’s superb 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s timely to note how representations of Tennessee Williams’s work has changed as a result, with a broadening of approaches particularly visible in the last 18-months. As a great American dramatist, Williams’s timeless understanding of human emotion and the particularly explosive dynamics of family groups has always been such a notable feature of his writing and for which the latest crop of productions have scruitinised his work. There has been a shift from period-focused productions that situate Williams’s play squarely in their 1940s and 1950s context to more contemporary or undefinable settings, while entirely reinterpreted productions of big hitters StreetcarCat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, which recur with some frequency, have shared the limelight with less celebrated plays as directors made an impassioned case for the value of Williams’s wider portfolio and new ways of seeing his work.

The screening of the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire via National Theatre at Home, available since last Thursday, is a valuable reminder of what a landmark production this was in several ways, beautifully skirting the boundaries of reality and illusion so redolent of Williams’s tone and characters. Benedict Andrews’s modern approach brought revelatory insight to this frequently performed classic, representing Blanche as a vulnerable predator whose declining mental health is so tangibly associated with a youthful tragedy and the subsequent denial of her natural instincts. There’s nothing timid about the nature of desire in Andrews interpretation, it is passionate, explosive and ultimately damaging, and since 2014, productions have increasingly taken this approach to staging the Williams canon.

Rediscovering the Emotional Power of ‘Lesser’ Works

The most significant consequence of this has been for venues to investigate the broader work that Williams has produced. A prolific playwright with over 100 full length and One Act credits, the opportunity to see and reassess some of these pieces has been a fascinating one. Rebecca Frecknall’s Summer and Smoke for the Almeida which earned a West End transfer to the Duke of York’s, has perhaps done more than any other Williams production in the last decade to broaden our perspective of the writer. Stripping the production of staging and locational debris, Frecknall’s production brought a powerful resonance to the central relationship between socially awkward Alma and lonely Doctor John that was as affecting and emotionally loaded as anything you’ll see in Streetcar or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The focus on the tentative intimacy between these two fragile personalities was spellbinding as they movingly failed to find a rhythm, always out of step with each other on personal trajectories that unravelled and reconstructed their characters, making it impossible to be together.

Frecknall understood the rhythm of Williams’s writing so well, the heartbeat of a play in which its two protagonists are so trapped withing their own nature and so confined by the public perception of their personality that they are unable to respond to deeper calls within themselves. For Alma these are the earthier, animalistic impulses of attraction, whereas for John it is the more soulful demands of his heart. The clarity and power of this was both tangible and devastating in Frecknall’s production, making a startling case for the value of this rarely seen play.

Theatre Clywd’s production of Orpheus Descending which transferred to the Menier is by no means Williams’s best writing, to a degree lacking the simmering tension of family secrets, using the arrival of a stranger to unlock the past which partially lessens the impact of its consequences. Yet, this enjoyable version had much to say on Williams’s theme of caged personalities as store owner Lady was drawn to drifter Val. Here we particularly felt Williams’s empathy both for women who subvert their impulses as Lady does through her respectable marriage to Torrance, and for those whose natural exuberance and persistence destroys them as it does with Carol Cutrere. This insight really gets to the heart of so much of Williams’s work as the external ordinariness of his female characters in particular contrasts with the raging unfulfilled desires within them. Therein lies their essential tragedy, that small-town society disapproves of and sometimes actively persecutes the sexual need and expression of the Carols and Blanches in Williams’s plays but is more accepting of male promiscuity, confines the female characters even further, creating shame and self-loathing that empathetically drives them to the physical and psychological edge of society .

Finally, the King’s Head put together two rarely seen short-plays for its Southern Belles programme in July 2019 exploring sexuality and gender in the One Act pieces Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens. This proved a meaningful double bill, one that confirms Williams’s interested in hidden, unconstrainable and ultimately destructive emotional layers within the individual. There was also a fascinating power dynamic in both duologues that questioned how these two relationships were affected by monetary transaction and social status. In both an ’employer’ figure utilises their seniority to make demands they are not longer able to constrain, wrongly (perhaps) assuming the other returned their feelings. What was so interesting about Jamie Armitage’s approach was that central uncertainty, showing how commandingly Williams could relay shifting power dynamics, building scenes to a point where the narrative and the lead characters must make an all or nothing play, leaving them vulnerable and exposed.

Staging Simplicity 

Supporting these internalised and more emotionally suggestive approaches in which the external need to be ‘respectable’ contends with a character’s natural and often wilder impulses, staging approaches have become increasingly simplified and symbolic, emphasising atmosphere and tone.  A general trend across theatre which has also released the works of Chekhov and Pinter from their period confinement, with notional rather than explicit set detail contributing to this wider reassessment of Williams’s themes.

Both Southern Belles and Orpheus Descending performed in the three-quarter round opted for representative sets, implying just enough reality to indicate setting and era to the audience while clearing the main performance space for the interior character experience to fill the room. Designer Jonathan Fensom implied the inside of Lady’s store with a wooden slatted backdrop, representative seating area and a hint of the other rooms. Similiarly, Sarah Mercadé for Southern Belles also took an indicative approach with a few carefully positioned  pieces of furniture, while draping the small King’s Head auditorium in pink fabric. Both designers provided just enough visual information to prompt the audience’s imagination, while giving the actors a platform to prioritise intimacy between the characters and their emotional excavation.

Arguably, this simplicity works best in smaller spaces and when Benedict Andrews took a similarly parred-back approach to his disappointing 2017 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in which designer Magda Willi created a monied and stylishly-minimised set, the oddly cold atmosphere failed to fill the Apollo’s cavernous space and gave the production a hollow ring. Set design has to reflect the heat within Williams’s plays, so it is interesting that Summer and Smoke had no such problems when it transferred to the Duke of York’s where its entirely representative set worked just as powerfully in the close confines of the Almeida as it did later in the West End. Very little in Tom Scutt’s design indicated the play’s location or era, instead a semi-circle of pianos, a metronome and lighting became the physical substance of a play that used music and beat to chart the emotional rhythm of the central relationship with considerable success, leading us back to Williams’s fascination with the line between reality and illusion.

James Macdonald’s Night of the Iguana may have bucked the trend for simpler sets last year but strong characterisation by Clive Owen and Lia Williams overcame the cartoony background to give a captivating depth to the conversations between the alcoholic cleric and the unassuming traveller. In spite of this, the general trend since Andrews Streetcar has been a sharper focus on using the text and Williams’s language to create tone and claustrophobic tension between the characters – the fact that budget and space limitations has meant this way of looking at Williams’s work has emerged largely from the smaller Off-West End and Fringe venues is testament to their influence within the industry where visual trends don’t just filter down from the top.

A New Context – The Future of Characterisation

Some of the most fascinating developments have been in reconceiving a play in its entirety, changing not just its era but thinking about character and context that take interpretations of Williams’s work in quite different and exciting new directions. Making a case for the absolute universality of the writer’s emotional constructs, director Femi Elufowoju jr completely reimagined The Glass Menagerie at the Arcola last autumn, retaining its period setting but making the working-class Wingfield family African-American – a decision which worked seamlessly, adding a fresh dimension to a well-worn story.  With its notes of faded dreams and missed opportunities, the production developed an added nuance without changing a word of the original text, shifting the emphasise to the limitations of the American Dream and its aspirations while adding a deeper but valuable social and political commentary – a layer that Marianne Elliott also extracted from her similar treatment of Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Who knows what further levels Ivo van Hove would have discovered (or lost) in slimming Williams’s play to two hours, and performing it in French by a Parisian company, led by the Belgian director. With Isabelle Huppert  playing the role of Amanda, this postponed production, which was due to arrive at the Barbican in early June as the second stop on a European tour, may be another theatre casualty of the pandemic, but its very existence speaks to a new interest in reinterpreting Williams and examining the application of his themes in different international contexts, even in translation.

These productions open enormous possibilities for the future of Williams’s work where the universality of the human experience and the ways in which societies attempt to define and confine the individual are applied to entirely new scenarios. The destructive impulses that Williams writes about are not unique to American society and if Inua Ellams can relocate Chekhov to Nigeria, then Williams can exist anywhere that a physical heat and secrets drive human behaviour.  Recent productions continue to push the boundaries of interpretation, increasing our understanding and appreciation of one of the twentieth-century’s most enduring playwrights. ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic’ Blanche exclaims in A Streetcar Named Desire; no matter how and where his plays are staged Williams always shows us the painful fragility of both. Let’s keep pushing.

A Streetcar Named Desire is freely available on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel until Thursday 28 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Midnight Your Time and the Cinefication of Theatre

Midnight Your Time - Donmar Warehouse

Theatre has often been quite quick to react to new technologies, with set designers and directors at the forefront of integrating new approaches to staging and visualising a show. For better or worse, the association between theatre, television and film has only grown closer in the last ten years, not just with writers, directors and performers moving between the different genres with increasingly fluidity, but in the adoption of cinematic technique within productions. At a sector level, the influence of NT Live since 2009 has sometimes shaped how a show is put together. You need only look at the abstract way in which Frankenstein was shot to wonder what influence its film director Danny Boyle had on the final screening versions, and while the lure of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet brought the Barbican to a standstill, it was somewhat lost on its cavernous stage, but the production lived for its cinema-relay where the various technical decisions came together more successfully.

The use of video and film technique have also been integrated into the narrative experience  in a variety of ways, either as a means of identifying and recording action taking place “off-stage” or more directly as part of the overall visual design of a show. Ivo van Hove has made it a trademark and, love or hate it, much of his European work and now increasingly his UK output uses camera relay as an integral part of the show’s structure, projecting scrutinising close-ups of his actors even in the hidden crannies of the stage. This was notable in All About Eve where private moments in bathrooms and kitchens, from which other characters were purposefully excluded, were shared with the audience to increase the sense of dramatic irony and the notion of permanent performance which its group of creatives were experiencing. In Network at the National Theatre, van Hove had his actors begin a scene outside on the Southbank, live-streaming their arrival at the fictional TV studio where footage and the relationship between presenter and viewer was crucial. Even the more controversial Obsession – which is van Hove’s most European show to date – used its film noir ancestry to create an abstract, screen-filled experience.

But there are other kinds of show that have used film techniques for specific directorial and design effects as well as for driving narrative decisions. In 2016, Robert Icke’s superb adaptation of The Red Barn at the National Theatre adopted some of the split-screen approaches, used extensively in the 1960s, to build tension in a flowing murder mystery. Icke played with the proportions of the stage and seamlessly created window blocks to change the scale and visual impact of the action. Creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul went a step further in Dear Evan Hansen  – the first musical to fully embrace and reflect the social media age – which opened in London last November, and created a stage filled with social media feeds that run continuously throughout the show as Twitter, Instagram and Youtube content became the context and the cause of the story.

And here we are at another moment of significant change where filmic content has been the major solution for an industry desperate to sustain engagement with its existing and new theatre audiences, as well as diversifying income streams during the lockdown. Previous productions recorded live and offered for free by the National Theatre at Home initiative have been so successful that more and more theatres have started to offer archived content with The Old Vic the latest to announce its own streaming channel from June. Prepared to “give back” at a time of crisis, content created for cinema screening and / or recorded using its techniques may yet be the saving grace of the theatre industry.

In a few cases, film and video-based platforms have also facilitated the recording and sharing of brand new material. Increasingly Zoom and other similar communication channels are been used to performed Shakespeare plays or musical theatre tribute concerts. Whether we openly recognise it, these are still cinematic experiences, ones watched on a screen, often with directorial consideration of camera placement, shot selection and cut decisions that pre-plan / rehearse how plays will be presented when they appear on audience laptops, smart phones and televisions.

All of this brings us to Midnight Your Time, a 30-minute play written in 2011 by Adam Brace and performed at the High Tide Festival by Diana Quick who stars in the Donmar Warehouse’s revival under the leadership of her director then and now, Michael Longhurst. Nine years ago, the staging took the Ivo van Hove route, projecting protagonist Judy’s image on a screen above the actor during a series of one-sided video calls. In 2020, Longhurst utilises the tools of film editing to transpose the entire production into Judy’s screen so the audience sees the show from unseen daughter Helen’s perspective as message after revealing message is recorded.

The video-based calling platforms have become all too familiar to many of us in recent weeks and whether it’s Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype or seemingly endless others, these have been our primary means of communication with friends, family and colleagues since lockdown began. So it’s with a certain weary glee that Midnight Your Time reflects our current experience back at us, without altering the very specific era and political context of the show which begins in the small hours of New Year’s Day 2010.

Longhurst’s production is a series of short ‘scenes’, each one a separate video message the despairing Judy sends to her unresponsive daughter over a period of months. The premise and the building drama of the show depends on the protagonist’s interaction with the video call platform and its functionality which allows her to record messages for the recipient, as well as the option to delete and reconstruct the conversation she wishes to have.

This becomes particularly important as the truth about this mother-daughter relationship slowly emerges, and as Brace conversationally drip-feeds information – a hint of a past row here, the growing resentment of unreturned calls there – Longhurst uses a series of quick cuts to indicate conversations happening in a compressed time frame to reflect Judy’s optimistic, concessionary mood at the beginning of the play, or, more dramatically, in a late night scene in which she repeatedly lets her temper get the better of her and has to revise her message – the screen equivalent of throwing balled-up letters over her shoulder.

The staging of this extended monologue is both casual and remarkably formal, filmed in different rooms of Quick’s house – a decision that seems to be more than one of sheer variety – feeding directly into the two halves of Judy’s personality that so distinctly emerge as the narrative unfolds. In the welcoming warmth of the clean kitchen, the audience learns of Judy’s day-to-day activities, her legal training, involvement in a women’s peace organisation and the succession of middle-class parties and dinners that comprise her social activity. The bright lighting and position of the camera, revealing a particular kind of lifestyle.

The contrast in the more emotional scenes is notable and fascinating. Set either in the plush bedroom or living room, the curtains are always drawn, the light is limited and filming seems to take place at an entirely different time of day. While the audience is invited into these other rooms of the house, there is something incredible personal and almost voyeuristic about the result as Judy’s emotional, and sometimes physical, disorder exudes from these shots, private moments of revelation, of alcoholic dishevelment and guilt that seem to spring from the cosy backdrop.

And this awareness of the camera, it’s ability to pick-up on the subtext within the play and extrapolate much through the social environment is just as essential to Quick’s performance. It may seem particularly obvious to note that this is a play in which the camera is the key means of communication, but acting to camera requires a different calibration than stage acting which changes the scale of facial movements and physical gestures. Look at Sea Wall briefly made available on Youtube last week in which Andrew Scott’s performance has an extraordinary understanding of how to elicit maxim pathos and drama from a fixed-position camera.

Unlike on stage, only Judy’s head and shoulders are visible, very rarely do we see her entire body and the audience must rely on Quick to deliver a series of social cues that reveal everything about her state of mind. In moments of confidence she leans happily back in her chair, her make-up, hair and outfit purposefully designed to show Judy in her most level and public state – something all of us will recognise as we ‘dress’ for calls.  At her most vulnerable, she slumps defeated or leans close to the camera, pleading with her daughter to notice and respond to her entreaties, which only enhances the visual effect of her disordered hair and broken expression.

The relatively short scene structure that Brace has put in place, and from which Longhurst elicits such nuance, also uses the camera to create another interesting facet to this production, that of narrative unreliability. The audience initially is asked to empathise with Judy, a mother persistently trying to contact her feckless daughter, but as the story unfolds the changing locations and style call into question Judy’s motives by slowly revealing a controlling and potentially offensive authoritarianism that rankles with her silent daughter as clearly as it seems to with her charity colleagues and neighbours. Quick and Longhurst uses performance, shot design and direction to slowly shift the balance, helping the viewer to wonder whose side we should really be on.

After lockdown, there are valid concerns that new voices may be swallowed up in the desire to programme safely or that only the larger commercial auditoriums will still be there when theatre’s re-emerge. Yet this confining period is giving the industry plenty of food for thought and conversations abound about how the sector might look when venues reopen, this is a moment for re-evaluation from which all kinds of innovation could come. And, there is no doubting that the links between theatre and film, so vital to the sustenance of community in recent months, will only strengthen. How the semi-improvised simplicity of Zoom Shakespeare or the screen-based interactions that have become our main point of contact with the world will eventually impact the stage remains to be seen, but the recording and sharing of the live theatre experience is surely changed forever.

Midnight Your Time is available on the Donmar Warehouse website until 20th May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Henry IV: Part One – Drama on 3

Toby Jones, Iain Glen and Luke Thompson

Shakespeare’s Henriad trilogy comprising Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V is one of dramas greatest studies in character development, taking the young and flighty Prince Hal from rebellious, tavern-dwelling rascal to warrior king. Against the backdrop of one of the most formative periods of English history in which the Plantagenet dynasty solidified its power, setting down attempts to overthrow their dynastic control, while sewing the seeds for the York versus Lancaster battles that are the foundation of our modern monarchy. It is little wonder that the role of Prince Hal / Henry V has attracted many of our finest actors from Alex Hassell for the RSC to Tom Hiddleston for the BBC and Timothee Chalamet for Netflix. Just as attractive, the role of Henry IV himself has been played by many illustrious performers on stage and screen including Patrick Stewart and Jeremy Irons, while Hal’s great friend Falstaff has been Simon Russell Beale, Joel Edgerton and  Anthony Sher.

Now Drama on 3 adds to this distinguished group with a radio production led by Iain Glen, Toby Jones and Luke Thompson. Henry IV – Part One is a play about transition in which the central characters are forced to accept their own destiny, to see themselves truly for the first time. And while much of the attention is on the partying prince learning the error of his youthful exuberance and foolish friendship, in focusing equally on Falstaff and King Henry, Shakespeare has much to say about the indignities of ageing, the taciturn nature of monarchy and the nature of public image.

Sally Avens’s radio drama, contained within a two-hour running time, expends some of the broader historical narrative to really develop the idea of Hal torn between two seemingly different but mutually disappointing father figures as he subconsciously attempts to hide from his duty as heir apparent. It is a production in which military endeavour becomes the means through which an estranged son is reconciled with one father while starting to see through another.

As with Emma Harding’s excellent Othello a few weeks ago, Avens’s Henry IV – Part One finds an intimacy with its central characters, drawing them metaphorically and audibly into the foreground to explore their quite different characters, as well as their inexplicable hold over one another. And whether attention is focused on any of Shakespeare’s three character sets – the Court, the Eastcheap Group or the Rebels – the clarity of their purpose and the complexity of their motivation is given prominence. The overall effect is to clearly see how loyalties within the tetralogy (Richard II and the three Henry plays) are shaped over time, changing as political fortunes ebb and flow.

The creation of place once again becomes crucial to managing the three strands of the story before the cataclysmic intersection of these parties at the Battle of Shrewsbury. The murmur of voices and revelry that make up the Eastcheap Tavern suggest plenty of happy afternoons for Prince Hal and Falstaff in the cosy but not overwhelmingly busy confines of their favourite drinking establishment. There is a warmth and welcome in this soundscape that does so much to add to the atmosphere of the pub. Likewise, the cold and formal austerity of the court has a faint echoing quality suggestive of grand medieval stonework and the reverent silence of its architecture. Meanwhile the homely countryside residence of the Percy family has a foreboding quality, of happy family life soon to be disrupted, the calm before the storm.

The use of sound effects comes into its own in the play’s final sequences set in the midst of the battle, and while TV budgets mean these scenes can look a little sparse – often a handful of men meant to look like thousands, or worse clunky CGI battalions – using audio effects alone better creates the chaos and energy of combat, richly conveyed here using layers of sound including clanking swords, whinnying horses and the physical exertion of engaged men across the battlefield as exhausted but exhilarated soldiers contend.

And this becomes crucial as the battle marks a watershed in the wider play, both in terms of the various political machinations that have threatened Henry’s throne as well as marking a sea change in the characterisation, setting-up some new behaviours as well as the notable decline of the old ways that dominates the atmosphere in Henry IV-Part Two, which in turn subsequently makes way for the outward facing foreign policy programme and dynastic consolidation of Henry V. Consequently, the Battle of Shrewsbury feels climactic and decisive in several ways, and Avens’s production has some sense of the completeness that Shakespeare intends when he left this play without a cliffhanger.

Instead, the rebels are crushed, Hal proves his worth while reconciling with his father and Falstaff’s mendacity is finally the cause of a severence with the young prince. This Drama on 3 version slims the text in a way rarely seen on stage, but nonetheless manages to take the characters through their story arc and deposit them creditably at the point of ultimate military and personal conquest ready for the wheel of fortune to turn further in Part Two.

Falstaff is one of drama’s most memorable comic creations and his presence dominates what is essentially a dynastic story of political stability played across a number of father-son relationship. In most Shakespeare plays it is relatively unusual for the humorous sideshow characters to dominate proceedings, although recent versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre and Wilton’s Music Hall emphasised the Rude Mechanicals and built their vision for the play around them. Yet Falstaff alone has long held the cultural imagination.

Toby Jones might struggle to be cast onstage bearing as little resemblance to the portly alcoholic of description as the tall, slight Matthew Needham did to the physical heft of Stanley Kowalski, but radio offers much greater casting fluidity for actors and Jones is superb as the verbose, flustered and evasive merrymaker who prizes his own comfort above duty, loyalty and most importantly truth.

Using just his voice, Jones vividly conveys the shabby untidiness of the man, a very bodily implication of lumbering dishevelment that has tones of his recent (and sadly truncated) performance as Vanya. Falstaff lies with disarming ease, mixing outright falsehoods with exaggerations and misdirection in an attempt to increase his own sense of importance, making his achievements grander and more daring than they really were.

With considerable skill, Jones doesn’t go looking for the comedy but allows it to emerge naturally from the characterisation he builds, strongly suggesting how little control Falstaff has over these aspects of his personality which come more from a disordered fluster than a malicious desire to deceive, at least in his tavern-based bragging, a drunken desire to tell the best story. It is only when he is really in danger at the Battle of Shrewsbury where his self-preservation instinct becomes more poisonous in Jones’s interpretation, nicely creating the conditions for the rift with Prince Hal that follows in Part Two.

Luke Thompson builds on his growing portfolio of Shakespeare performances, giving his Prince Hal a playful quality, a young man enjoying his freedom and the company of men that on one level he finds ridiculous. The cheeky and teasing tone that Thompson employs when talking to Falstaff in particular and the enjoyment of practical jokes and impressions is tempered by a hint of mockery, the lightest touch of disdain that suggests that this ‘young Harry’ never forgets his superiority of birth, intelligence and manner in which his thoughts are already turning to life beyond Eastcheap, even as the play begins.

Soon, then, the various and obvious exaggerations of his companion are met with exasperated irony, as though the shine is coming off the friendship. Thus, when Hal is recalled to Court to help set-down the brewing rebellion, Thompson’s heir apparent is ready to move into his public role, to finally assume the responsibilities of adulthood that mark his progress through these three plays. Although Part Two will see this resolve waver slightly, here in Part One, the final confrontation with Tom Glynn-Carney’s Hotspur on the battlefield is climactic and decisively played by a prince at once defending and assuming his birthright.

There are further theatre stars among the extended cast including Iain Glen adding a wonderful gravitas at Henry IV, the monarch who conquered his way to the crown, sober and grave but regal and dignified in his management of the court. The stately rage he summons to address his former comrades marks a clear separation between the man he once was and the king he has become – foreshadowing Hal’s own transformation in this trilogy – and the dismissal with which he treats Hotspur clearly ignites the ire of the Percy clan.

But it is the relationship with Prince Hal where Henry IV’s stoical reserve is most tested as Glen intriguingly navigates a sharp disappointment and frustration while retaining a deep affection for the son he physically and emotionally fails to inspire. The lengthy speech on reconciliation addressed to Hal is a wonderful example of inspirational chastisement in which Glen stirringly advocates the transforming soberness of monarchy and the exchange of person for symbol that he hopes Hal will replicate, while shaming him with tales of the fiery exploits of Hotspur.

The stunted rebellion, led by the Percys, is often the least considered aspect of the story despite mirroring Henry IV’s own belligerent ascent to the throne, but there Avens carves this story into three, alloting equal time to their cause, suggesting how the once allied family lost faith in the man they previously helped to make a king. Tom Glynn-Carney is a determined Hotspur, barely able to conceal his temper when the Percy name is seemingly disrespected by Henry IV, and implying a close family life with Mark Bonnar’s Worcester. The various extended relationships with the Welsh and Scottish insurgents remain as confusing as Shakespeare wrote them but John Nicholls music lends their conversations plenty of conspiratorial atmosphere.

This Henry VI-Part One is at heart a character-study rather than a historical epic, and Avens brings the recording of soliloquies forward in the soundscape to create intimacy and insight. It gives this fine collection of theatre actors a chance to really explore the inner life of their characters and bring them fully and roundly to life in this enjoyable radio dramatisation. Whether just this first portion of the Henriad trilogy was commissioned or lockdown has delayed recording of the rest, let’s hope Radio 3 can gather Jones, Glen and Thompson together soon for Henry IV-Part Two and Henry V , although when our theatres reopen we may yet see it staged.

Henry IV – Part One is available via the BBC Sounds website for at least twelve months. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Frankenstein vs. Frankenstein – National Theatre at Home

Frankenstein - National Theatre

The National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein is one of the great pieces of twenty-first century drama, a rare combination of directorial vision, gripping storytelling, outstanding production values and two great actors at the top of their game alternating the lead roles night after night. A repeat favourite for NT Live screenings that consistently sells well, the decision to stream both versions as part of the National Theatre at Home series is a canny one. Intending to unite a community of theatre-lovers online, the programme began with the cheeky brilliance of One Man, Two Guvnors attracting over a million viewers on the first night, but for the three screenings since then viewing figures have dwindled. And while showing plays for free has been a welcome and public spirited act by one of our foremost theatres, there are big financial drivers – fewer viewers mean fewer donations at a crucial time.

Understandably then the announcement that Antony and Cleopatra would be preceded by a double bill of Frankensteins caused a bit of a flutter, combining one of their most recent productions staged just last year with unarguably one of their greatest. A very public boost for the NT, this rare two-premiere week aired Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature on Thursday night, followed by Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature on Friday, making both available for seven days. Other than a general preference for one actor over another, is there any benefit in seeing both versions and was role swapping any more than a gimmick?

The audience certainly didn’t think so, and Cumberbatch’s version had attracted close to 800,000 views in the first 24 hours, while Miller racked up a further 300,000 by Saturday night. Regular theatre goers will often see many versions of the same play each year, the sunnier months are packed with productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream while some years you can barely move for Hamlets and Macbeths at every playhouse. And excepting musicals such as Dear Evan Hansen where the young leads rotate, in drama unless an understudy is required to assume the role from an indisposed star, you are rarely afforded the chance to see the same show transformed by an alternative actor.

So, seeing both versions of Frankenstein in quick succession is a fascinating experience, the sets, blocking and text are all the same, yet the whole concept of the show is cast anew by the differing interpretations of the actors. The similarities and differences in their approaches are considerable and while it is tempting to try a ‘who played it best’ game, it is far more interesting to consider how interchanging the actors speaks purposefully to Danny Boyle’s vision for a show in which creature and creator are one and the same, and the extent to which Cumberbatch and Miller take their distinct interpretations of Doctor Frankenstein into their performance as the Creature.

The conceit of the actors sharing the primary roles is more than a fun gimmick intending to lure audiences back a second time, and, even years later on film, it is clear that the concept gets to the very heart of Boyle’s approach, the idea that all men are simultaneously man and monster, creator and destroyer. Thus, in each version we see not only how Frankenstein and the Creature are two sides of each other, but, as the posters for this show so carefully suggest, how each actor finds a similar balance within themselves as their different but valid and meaningful approaches to both roles come to life.

The Creature

Cumberbatch’s Creature begins with a childlike wonder at the world, his body may be formed but his mind is in infancy therefore much of the early part of the show involves the basic stages of human development, learning to walk, make sounds, form words and to assimilate behaviours. There is a wonderous joy to the Creature’s fascination with weather as he plays in the rain or clutches at the snow, while the bond he quickly forms with Karl Johnson’s gentle and caring De Lacey is full of pathos. And the viewer feels how decisively Cumberbatch’s Creature is severed from his own innate goodness and innocence which draws on the religious themes of the play, a symbolic Adam enjoying the Garden of Eden but cast out to become a destructive force.

Cumberbatch’s approach gives this version of the play an almost magical or supernatural quality, a warped fairy tale of man corrupted, playing-out against the heightened reality of Mark Tildesley’s stunning set design in bold reds and orange, or cool mystical whites. The rippling effects created by Bruno Poet’s lighting design emphasise the electrical spark of life, governed by an array of lightbulbs above the stage that pulse and shine with an other-worldliness suggestive of an unseen  God observing and eventually punishing Frankenstein’s folly. Cumberbatch’s Creature charts a path of tragic inevitability, the man who didn’t ask to be born labelled as physically, emotionally and mentally unsuited for society while forces beyond his control shape his destiny.

Contrast this with Miller’s earthier approach which fundamentally alters the air around the stationary elements of this production. His Creature is born a fully formed man, his gestures and movements are not those of tender discovery but of pre-determined certainty, while his mind which is under-developed at the start, is an adult brain struggling to form thoughts and expression, limited by the particular stitches and connections of the anatomy created for him. But most importantly there is a physical heft to Miller’s performance that draws out the dangerous side of the Creature much earlier, making sense of the fear he engenders in others. While he is capable of kindness and soulful contemplation, this Creature is instantly corrupted by Frankenstein’s abandonment and full of rage that good principles and intellectualism will never subdue.

Miller’s approach comments on the fallacy of human society, a veneer of behaviours and imposed moral values that attempt to control and contain the inner beast. Suddenly Tildesley’s set and Poet’s colourful lighting no longer seem full of twinkling possibility and the comforts of God, but dark and unyielding markers of a violent and desolate world. So, as the burning red of De Lacey’s farmhouse gives way to the eerie placidity of Lake Geneva, the tone is far darker, a hopeless landscape of endless fire and ice. The staging is exactly the same, the lighting cues just as they were in Cumberbatch’s version but Miller’s very distinct interpretation casts the whole story quite differently. This is why Boyle’s duel approach is so fascinating, as innocence and darkness contend across the two productions.

Frankenstein

By necessity then, both approaches also affect how the actors play Frankenstein, although there are more similarities here because the famous doctor is described by others in the play as aloof and distracted, there are nonetheless subtle differences in the degrees of cruelty that the performers introduce into their interpretations. Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein is in some ways a deliberately harsh figure, he berates the small mindedness of those around him, angrily dismisses the ‘little people with their little lives’, words he spits out to his creation and actively emphasises his mental superiority to those he supposedly cares for, including his fiancee Elizabeth. Cumberbatch’s arrogant and occasionally smugly superior Frankenstein has a distinctive God-complex, thrilled by his ability to control life and death.

His interaction with the Creature doesn’t make him any humbler, holding fast to the idea that his creation has no right to independence, no fatherly compassion for his suffering or vision beyond his own academic needs. In line with Miller’s more masculine interpretation, Frankenstein’s determination to destroy the Creature comes from a cold scientific belief that he has served his purpose and no longer matters, treating the world, as Elizabeth shrewdly points out, as specimens to be studied and disposed of.

Miller’s Frankenstein has a similar arrogance about his talent as a scientist but he seems more bemused than bewitched by his ability to create life. There is a sense of burden on the shoulders of Miller’s Frankenstein – which sits in the context of Cumberbatch’s Creature emphasising the external drivers of destiny – of weary inevitability that forces his absence from the world. The aloofness that frustrates his family comes from a place of fear and an inability to forge human connection that instead drives his desire to create in the hope of locating his own emotional centre.

The confrontations with the Creature, then, are less affect by the imposing bulk of the man but a powerlessness in Frankenstein as a new sense of responsibility and consequence overwhelm him. Rather than revel in his God-like potency, Miller suggests how Frankenstein is weighed down by his fate, and in trying to fight against it, must eventually give himself over to the certainty of eternal punishment by coming to accept the independence and right to existence his Creature has earned. Thus, the outward signals of these two Frankensteins are similar but the interior life the actors create gives them a different emphasis.

The Creature vs. Frankenstein

Seeing two distinct approaches to the same character proves fascinating and your preference for one version over the other will depend on which actor you like in general and the tone that best suits your interpretation of this famous story. Yet, the two productions really function as intricately calibrated complimentary pieces in which the performers explored the notion of duality. The innocence of Cumberbatch’s guileless Creature fascinated by the simplicity of his own existence contrasts with Cumberbatch’s intense and compassionless Frankenstein, all the goodness and wonder of the world stored in his creation, with all the arrogance of man’s corruption in his creator. Meanwhile Miller’s more brutish Creature who accepts the base nature of his fellow men is met by the emotional uncertainty of his own Frankenstein, a man trapped by circumstance and resigned to his fate.

Boyle’s production is the star and makes you long for the director to return to stage (and slight mourning his Bond that never was). The National Theatre’s decision to stream his two productions is a smart one and they offer a huge amount of insight seen side-by-side. This is the theatre at its very best and on screen, both productions are gripping, using the camera work to richly convey the abstract shapes and grand vision of its boldly beautiful staging, while allowing the connection between the lead actors to shine. Most interesting of all is not whether Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller is ‘better’ in a particular role but what each actor reveals and emphasises within the two roles they play, and where they think the monstrous nature of man truly resides.

Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature is available until 7 May while Frankenstein with Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature is available until 8 May on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel for free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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