Monthly Archives: March 2023

A Little Life – Harold Pinter Theatre

A Little Life (by Jan Versweyveld)

Anyone who has read the book will know what to expect or if you haven’t then there are enough content warnings to prepare you at least for some of what is to come in Ivo van Hove and Koen Tachelet’s stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. In practice it is a blistering experience that realigns the source material to create a more integrated theatrical experience using plenty of techniques that van Hove more usually applies to working with his Dutch company – long, overlapping productions that blend past and present, interior and exterior with multi-character perspectives of years, sometimes decades of human experience with multiple layers of story all happening simultaneously. van Hove knows how to direct an epic and A Little Life is certainly that, an astonishing and astonishingly bleak experience that builds across more than three and half hours of performance.

It is never easy to adapt a novel of this scale and particularly one that became a word-of-mouth hit when it was released in 2015 and many will be very protective about how it has been translated. It is not the same on stage and van Hove has taken a number of liberties with the running order of the novel as well as the compression or simplification of some of the surrounding material. Jude is given even greater centrality than even Yanagihara gave him but at the expense of Malcolm, JB and even to an extent Willem, whose characters are slimmed down. But van Hove’s most interesting choice is to scatter more of Jude’s trauma through the story from the start, allowing the audience into the abuse and sexual assaults far earlier than the novelist does.

It is a decision that works really effectively in this adaptation, removing some of the melodrama of the novel and giving it a raw power, constantly underpinning and shaping Jude’s behaviour and reactions in ways that vitally motivate the development of his character and the endlessly tragic cycle of his life. Revealed by degrees, it gives the audience a greater stake in what must be a visual story onstage, creating a scenario in which the viewer knows more than some of the characters and is thus able to understand the different emotional reactions and beat of conversations. The novel is able to ‘tell’ at great length but the theatre-maker must ‘show,’ and van Hove’s reworking of the original text negotiates that adaptive process really effectively.

Part of that comes from the staging choices, a continual flow of activity with no obvious scene breaks but a choreographed sequence of ongoing life in which Jude’s experience reveals patterns of behaviour and self-destruction that becoming horribly compelling. A Little Life is a deeply harrowing story to read and seeing it performed somehow makes it all the more intense. But the repetitive and compulsive cycles of Jude’s self-harm are presented with considerable clarity, and in reordering the flow of memories more completely into the present day trajectory of the central character, van Hove and Tachelet draw a more direct line between the two and their consequences. We see Jude unpack the razor and prep kit he squirrels away in the bathroom and use it, again and again and again. We see the release it gives him and the pressure he feels when prevented from cutting, and there is real impact when his damaged body is carried to the hospital bed on several occasions by his perplexed friends, all in the dark about his past and, largely his present as well. But in giving the audience this extra insight, it makes us as powerless to help as they are.

There are a mixture of quite interesting narrative devices in which the characters address the audience to summarise their own experiences to the viewer directly. van Hove and Tachelet use this as an opportunity to utilise the interior monologue of the novel and dramatise some of the things characters feel about one another but would never say in conversation, such as JB’s early explanation of feeling like an outsider in the group of friends, giving useful background to the falling out the men have over his painting of Jude. At other times characters describe each other’s actions or help time to pass, noting what they did individually or as a group over months or years as they move from their 30s to their 50s, talking about themselves in the past tense as they go, as though their existence together is already a lost memory.

There is also a dead, conscience-like character, Ana, who appears to Jude at times of crisis, of which there are many, to guide him, His former social worker given an expanded role here (and the only female one) to encourage him to talk to his friends about his life – a continual recommendation made in the play that Jude refuses to heed. But, again, Ana becomes a useful device for translating Jude’s internal monologue and reasoning in tangible ways for an audience that works quite successfully alongside the straightforwardly dramatic scenes of ordinary conversation and interaction.

Together the easy flow of the production and these varied storytelling approaches gives the show a magnetism that is hard to look away from. It is horrible and very hard to watch but at the same time impossible not to. And it is almost relentlessly awful as the unbelievably dark truth about Jude’s life is revealed along with his treatment by a series of predators – all played by the same actor, Elliot Cowan, in a shrewd conflation of characters. And van Hove doesn’t hold back any more than Yanagihara does with depictions of self-harm, rape and physical as well as emotional abuse all played with a seriousness that avoids mawkishness and instead focuses on psychological compulsion and the building of a character who believes he deserves to suffer.

Some of this emerges within the physicality of the performance which uses nudity sparingly but to quite powerful effect. Jude’s body becomes a kind of battleground, something apart from himself which is used and damaged by others that turns him against his own flesh, so much so that harming it becomes his only form of control over a corporeal self that disgusts him. The audience is reminded early on that Jude is a character who doesn’t like to undress because of the scars on his body and he is raped twice while fully clothed. So when he is naked in this production, Jude is frail and terribly vulnerable in scenarios controlled by others who coerce or threaten him and inflict suffering on his body. But in that too is a kind of compulsion, exploring the events that are shaping his reaction to his body and the uses it has been put to, so hard-wired that he cannot escape them even with best friend Willem.

There are moments of happiness that temper this, of friendship and love with Jude finding acceptance with Harold who adopts him aged 30 and later in a serious relationship with Willem that, at least at first, is full of innocent goodness. But across the hours of this production, van Hove slowly increases the stakes, the destructive cycles get closer together, Jude recoils more and more from the interference of others, the ghosts of the past intrude more frequently, the levels of harm Jude needs to inflict on himself become larger, building and building to a poignant moment when it all has to end, where something finally snaps and all of the characters know there is nothing they can really do to prevent the inevitable. It is hard to watch but also hard not to.

van Hove has considerable experience with managing tone and the slow reveal of information as well as the building of inevitable tragedy over many hours, here applying similar techniques to his earlier Dutch language productions like Age of Rage that lasted for four hours at the Barbican which mixed Greek tragedies together in a singular story arc, as well as a similar approach to Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies before that. Notably, A Little Life was first developed and performed by the International Theatre Amsterdam at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, although it has lost more than 20-minutes of its running time in the move to London and into English. But this ability to balance staging effects, monumental storytelling and the management of audience engagement over long periods of time is really impressive, and the time flies by.

The show takes place in a minimalist living room and kitchen set designed by long-time collaborator Jan Versweyveld, a confined, intimate space that cuts the Harold Pinter stage into traverse with audience in front of and behind the action. It must feel claustrophobic, especially with actors on stage for long periods depending on how large a role they play in Jude’s life at the time. To the side, architect friend Malcolm has space to sit and design, artist JB paints while Willem, an actor, often sits at the back reading a script – all performing activities from their ‘real’ lives going on in the background of Jude’s struggles. In the centre, a free-standing sink that is the bathroom where Jude performs his harming ritual, and there is a sense of ceremony about it, as well as a space that becomes hospital rooms, the abbey, cars and everywhere the action needs to be. Versweyveld has created a compact but evocative space that feels like Jude’s life is continually and inescapably pressing in on him.

And it wouldn’t be a van Hove production without some use of film, here providing scenic backdrop of streets in New York that give location context on the side walls of the stage. But the slow running film never depicts the glamorous TV New York, but a fairly drab series of roads and buildings, endless and largely grey. Also designed by Versweyveld, the pressure Jude feels before cutting fuzzes and crackles through the screens, as though reality itself is distorting until the release brings a pink-tinge to that real world as it slowly returns to normal. An evocative device supported by live music that demonstrates the physical process that Jude goes through, almost immersive in its ability to help the audience to better understand his perspective and the forces driving him to act.

James Norton may not quite be the Jude of the novel but his performance of cumulative and eviscerating trauma is outstanding. His character sets himself apart from everyone else right from the start, always holding back and not fully able to engage. As van Hove takes Jude through a complex sequence of scenes taking place at different stages of his life, Norton moves seamlessly between the broken and destructive present and the childlike clinging of the younger Jude, deeply scarred by his experiences. The damage is palpable in Norton’s performance who seems to disintegrate as the story unfolds, physically bearing the effects of all those cuts and attempts to end his life on his blood soaked shirt. But the effect emerges through the body too and Norton’s Jude shrinks into himself more and more as the performance takes shape, curling inwards and entirely destabilised by the happiness on offer which is moving and deeply tragic.

Luke Thompson is just as impressive as Willem, Jude’s best friend who spends almost as much of the play on stage as the lead. Willem is a good person, kind and generous, supportive of his roommate in all things but Thompson shows the developing affection between them, which has a lovely innocent honesty about it, not seedy or coerced like the other relationships in Jude’s life but somehow purer. Yet that relationship eventually becomes extremely complicated and although Willem could have been quite a bland character, the difficulty of being with and constantly supporting Jude takes its toll in what is one of Thompson’s performances, eliciting a despair and frustrated desperation that is beautifully managed. The contrasting desire to support Jude and the rage at his own helplessness is engaging and painfully real.

There is strong support from the remainder of this small cast, particularly Zubin Varla who brings gravitas to the role of Harold, a kindly father figure who also finds himself at a loss to help his adopted son, as well as Omari Douglas as JB and Zach Wyatt as Malcolm, although neither gets as much stage time as their novel counterparts would suggest. Ultimately van Hove and this team have done great things with a tricky, enormously wide-ranging and imperfect novel, turning it into a tough and unremitting but quite breathtaking and powerful stage production.

A Little Life is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 June and then transfers to the Savoy Theatre fro 4 July-5 August. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Dance of Death – Coronet Theatre

This review expands an alternative version originally published by The Reviews Hub.

One part of the theatre ecosystem has taken a little longer to get back on its feet than any others and that is the opportunity to see some of the very best European theatre touring shows in London. And although there are plenty of European theatremakers who have made their homes here, seeing how familiar productions are interpreted quite differently in a stage tradition that is not always the same as our own is an important part of the ecosystem and a chance to reflect on how and why classic texts continue to offer up new and resonant interpretations. Usually, European productions find a home at the Barbican but The National Theatre of Norway has gone west to Notting Hill for the UK transfer of Dance of Death performed in the original Norwegian with English surtitles. This often thrilling production that explores the melodrama and violence in a 25-year marriage is compelling stuff, demonstrating how to make 120-year-old material feel brand new.

August Strindberg’s play is a glorious dystopian vision in which three over-familiar people tear each other to pieces for 85-minutes. The remote island setting and isolation of the central couple Alice and Edgar is palpable, particularly in this sparsely-staged National Theatre of Norway production that creates claustrophobia and distance between the characters in both a physical and emotional sense. Drama is filled with duos trapped in their own version of hell, from the oddities of Beckett including Waiting for Godot and Endgame, to works like Two Character Play by Tennessee Williams, all of which place their protagonists in complicated love-hate relationships with no way to escape their situation even though much of the drama focuses on the futility of their attempts to do so.

Strindberg essentially invents this concept here, long before it became an absurdist standard by placing a married couple at the heart of the play and exploring the complex dynamic between them, initially as a pairing, but later when old friend Kurt joins them and a triangle of sorts is created, shifting the power structure. However, Strindberg continues to execute his drama as primarily a series of duologues and only occasionally bringing the three characters together to examine how the balance has changed between them in the intervening scenes.

We are equally used to a third element signifying a change of power, an outsider whose purpose is to distort and intrude, usually claiming some kind of ascendancy over the other characters at the expense of one or both who are consequently displaced – and we largely have Pinter to thank for this model. But Strindberg has quite another purpose in mind, using Kurt to bring to the surface the various issues and ugliness in the lives of Alice and Edgar but ultimately drawing him into their problems and style of interaction rather than providing a potential solution to it – although Alice certainly (and perhaps even Edgar to an extent) believe Kurt will break the impasse between them. Strindberg is looking at the human capacity for self-destruction and degradation, a shameless need to exert power and influence over others that emerges from an emotion that was once love but has since crystallised into hate. That neither spouse attempts to conceal their nature from their guest is a clue to how far beyond redemption they are and why the creation of a mini-hell on this small island consumes them all.

Directed by Marit Moum Aune, this production creates a really strong sense of corrupted abandonment in which the two leads, despised within the community for reasons that the writer does not explain, have withdrawn into a cycle of loathed existence. Their routine annoys them and they live only to torment and hate the other, the only thing sustaining them in their vastly unvarying lives. That Edgar has a military authority to govern seems almost ludicrous and while essential to the plot following Kurt’s arrival, his lack of respect within the town and consequent inability to buy goods leaves the couple scratching an existence and creates further reasons to despise each other. Their life is the same every day, their interactions with others few and filled with the contempt of service providers and the privation of their living arrangements only worsens the punishment of their enforced co-existence.

But Aune notes a kind of mutual joy in their misery, even flickers of residual sexual attraction that lingers between them as the couple’s physical encounters border on the flirtatious even when Edgar violently grabs at his wife’s face and body. Whether he intends to harm her or wants to possess her is ambiguous in this production and neither option is fully confirmed, although it does make sense of the long years spent together as well as their continued engagement in a dangerous kind of game that both could have left or ended years before but chose not to. Life without each other is almost as inconceivable as more life together.

That this cycle of relationships exists outside of the central marriage as well is something that Strindberg explores during the few days that the audience spends with these characters, unpicking their intertwined history and how it affects their present. The misremembered idea that Kurt introduced the couple is repeated, leading to discussions on whether he is their cupid or the person to blame for the quarter century torture that has ensued. There is a strong chemistry between Alice and Kurt in the National Theatre of Norway’s production, noting a pre-existing frisson between them that may finally come to fruition more than a decade since they last saw one another.

But Strindberg is far more cynical about this than the audience and our conditioned notions of movie love stories suggest, encouraging us to believe in happy endings. Instead, Alice and Kurt fall into the same pattern of behaviour later in the play with an equivalent feisty attraction meeting potential violence and the wearing experience of too much of one person’s company with little respite. They bicker as Alice and Edgar do until the once abstemious Kurt falls into the same alcoholic pattern as his friend – is Alice the cause, this production wonders, as a common factor between the men, or is this just what all relationships are like in the end?

The second strand of this complicated dance that Aune’s production emphasises is the use of wider family members for blackmail purposes and as a tool for extorting compliance from others. This is principally Edgar’s trick and several references are made to Alice’s children being taught to despise her by their father, kept from her, she believes, by the lies their father has told them. Part of her decision to stay is the result of this use of her children. Similarly, later in the play, Edgar does the same with Kurt, a man whose relationship with his own sons is not straightforward, with custody awarded to his wife. Whether or not he abandoned his family is something Edgar is able to use to control Kurt’s time on the island and determine his future. Family for Strindberg is just another emotional connection that can be manipulated and Aune’s interpretation makes the separate dilemmas faced by Alice and Kurt quite central to their continued compliance with the demands this island places on them.

It is the wish for an ending that captivates all of them in different ways. The desire to break the cycle leads them all to terrible things and a series of spiteful acts, but it is Edgar’s health that creates the most dramatic opportunity. But Strindberg quickly suggests the double dilemma his possible demise would create for Alice, potentially evicting her from the home she has lived in for 25-years with no rights as a military widow, while assurance from the doctor of his longevity may equally encourage him to seek alternative comfort, leaving her unprotected and without finance in a period that was not kind to divorced women.

The central drama is melodramatic and excessive, sometimes aiming for big performances where perhaps the British tendency is to lower the mood and underplay the bombast or shrill emotional encounters which is quite interesting to observer. Yet it works really effectively here with Aune using a more allegorical staging to balance out and make space for the intricacies of these intense exchanges that bubble and spill out of the characters without any attempt to contain them. The lack of emotional restraint, the inability and unwillingness to hold back love, hate, passion or even mild indifference fills the stage instead and Aune’s approach does enough to suggest the wildness, disrepair and stranded state of a group of people who have not only forgotten how to live in society but no longer care.

Even Børsum’s set is in three parts that might be part of the same room but may equally be entirely separate locations, in some sense representing the three entities of this play who try but fail to come together. Sometimes characters walk across the breadth of it and others contain themselves to particular areas. Aune directs in one continuous flow with few obvious breaks between scenes or moments of complete darkness. At every point a character is onstage contemplating what is happening to their life or what the options might be, adding a growing and unremitting tension to the production that gives the audience as little relief from this situation as it does the characters.

Alice is such an interesting and impressive woman in many ways, demonstrating a level of forbearance and endurance that is admirable. But she also has an equal capacity for cruelty, just as strong as her husband and really quite unaffected by the possibility of his demise. Her complete disinterestedness in him and active attempts to harm are brilliantly realised in Pia Tjelta’s performance that vacillates between seductress, bored housewife and vicious avenger, all the while grasping at anything that will help her to escape, although she is never exactly sympathetic. Whether her feelings for Kurt are real or convenient is something Tjelta plays with throughout the show but having embarked on a particular course, she is determined to make him her life raft but seems unsurprised when she ends up back where she started.

Jon Øigarden’s performance as Edgar is sometimes harder to fathom, a largely comic approach relying on a childlike explosion of anger or sulkiness that tends to suck the air out of the room with over-elaborate fits that leaves the audience unsure whether Edgar is really sick or deliberately feigning illness to win the argument. But Øigarden makes Edgar quite dangerous, there is real threat in the way he mauls his wife and pure calculation in the latter half of the play when he tries to punish Alice and Kurt quite separately for their perceived failures towards him. No cuckold, this Edgar may have little respect in town but somehow he still has power.

Thorbjørn Harr’s is initially the only grown up in the room, an old friend dropping by and hoping to find welcome. Instead his seriousness instantly rankles, at least with Edgar who tries to drawn him into a battle about his family while Alice hopes to stir up old emotions between them. That they both succeed and drag Kurt into their game is well managed by Harr who shows his character’s gradual decline really effectively and how easily a good and decent man can be broken – underpinning Strindberg’s point that humanity is never far from degradation and it actually takes very little to destroy the thin surface of civilisation and politeness that we all cling to.

The National Theatre of Norway’s production of Dance of Death only has a short run but is an interesting and meaningful exploration of the excesses of emotion and desire in Strindberg’s play and the destructive routine of a long unhappy marriage. That this takes place in a period setting explains the limitations placed on character behaviour but Aune’s production and the complex central performances make this a really worthwhile experience and a fascinating opportunity to see Norwegian approaches to staging a classic Scandinavian text.

Dance of Death is at the Coronet Theatre until 31 March with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Further Than the Furthest Thing – Young Vic

Malevolent forces shaping small communities is a strong premise for all kinds of drama, from the arrival of outsiders that tend to be the focus of horror to the power shifts of Pinter plays that upset the status quo with new authorities forming that overshadow the existing order. Zinnie Harris’s 2000 play Further Than the Furthest Thing combines these ideas with broader notions of industrialisation and the religious management of a community relatively untroubled by the outside world until one if it’s returning sons brings change. But who exactly is in danger here, the islanders or the people that enter this place from outside? It may take close to three hours to find out but there is plenty to engage with along the way.

Staged in the round at the Young Vic, this revival is a purposefully disconcerting experience with long sections of deeply compelling conversation around which the story unfolds. Some of these feels quite tangential in the long first Act that runs for close to 90-minutes but the avenues that Harris pursues eventually coalesce in the second where the testing of family loyalties interacts with a fear of change and a romantic connection to home and the natural world. Throughout, there is an almost supernatural feeling of impending doom, of tragedy waiting to strike but not of the innocence of these island people being unfairly tested. This atmospheric play is ultimately about delayed retribution and the choices humanity makes for itself whatever the cost.

Harris has created a peculiar half world somewhere between an unsmirched Eden and a troubled land deliberately quarantining itself from the life beyond. It exists in a nowhere place that is accessible from Cape Town and England but with accents that mix Scottish and Irish with northern England. The extent to which the returning Francis and his factory-owning friend Mr Hansen bring some kind of evil with them is open to debate, or perhaps it exists on the island already with something stirring the sea, individuals behaving strangely, two fresh eggs being smashed to reveal a blackened centre and a new life on the way that does not necessarily indicate a welcome or fresh start for the characters.

The return of Mill and Bill’s nephew Francis from Cape Town is a happy event initially, although Mill’s refusal to be touched or hugged at first keeps Francis at bay, creating a separation between the generations as the younger seeks assimilation and development while the elder wish to preserve and honour their traditions. As Francis lays out a plan to build a factory on the island, something supported by the community in an unseen vote, Harris adopts an Enemy of the People feel but soon takes the play in another direction, referencing works as diverse as The Crucible in the closely observed interactions of a defined and frightened society, as well as Jerusalem in the unpicking of notions of illusory nationality and connection to the pastoral while something rotten or broken occurs on the surface. These portents of doom and the effect of nature itself steer the play towards a more uncomfortable, even pre-dystopian destination.

The two parts of Further Than the Furthest Thing are tonally quite different from one another, although they are thematically linked through discussions of cause and effect as well as the clash of rural and urban life. The first is set entirely on the unnamed island, a place reliant on ‘the boats’ to bring them food and people but largely unengaged with the countries beyond, entirely sitting out the Second World War as the audience discovers later in the play. It is nominally the early 1960s but Harris effectively creates a timeless and rootless place, using a linguistic quirk that gives the islanders a child like and colloquial sentence structure with few having attended school or ever left the place that they were born. But Harris uses only three characters to represent the community – Mill and her husband William known as Bill, along with young woman Rebecca.

The implication of unearthly influences on the island is not something that the play satisfactorily resolves, although a rational explanation is given in Act Two. Bill’s overwhelming encounter with the rumbling water in a mountain lake that almost causes him to drown is staged as a supernatural event in this Young Vic production with a dramatic opening scene directed by Jennifer Tang in which Ian William Galloway’s video design and Prema Mehta’s lighting create gentle waves that evolve into rapid, violent swirls of black and coloured light. That Bill is a Christian who saw the war and brought both a church and the practice of baptism – an significant ritual of renewal – to the community is an important theme in the context of these strange occurrences, implying a godly intervention, a punishment perhaps, that sits alongside the scientific reasoning of the second part of the drama. Yet in the characters’ devotion to the island, they never questions the factual cause or the possibility that this creator has turned on them.

This is given further emphasis in Rebecca’s story, pregnant by a man she refuses to name and viewed within the village as part scarlet woman in the style of Mary Magdalene and part maternal figure, perhaps experiencing an immaculate conception. Harris uses Rebecca as the catalyst for the drama and having established the strange wonders of island life, the attempt to keep Francis on the island through marriage and the true story behind Rebecca’s pregnancy take the story in a darker, almost horrifying direction with an act of conspiracy the characters must pay for later in the play. The powerful scene in which Rebecca gives birth with only Bill to support is sparsely staged by Designer Soutra Gilmour using black cloths and a coloured paste-like substance in place of both blood and water, implying the rottenness that has been born in this community, a place where nothing new can live.

Act Two is a very different proposition, set a year later in an English factory run by South African manager Mr Hansen in which Francis has assumed a supervisory role. Harris presents a far clearer concept of dystopia in a heavily populated industrial city that the islanders struggle to adjust to when their freedom is replaced by long hours of repetitive work, the sunless confines of the production line and boiler room as well as the damp-filled temporary homes they have been given. The writer examines notions of forgetting here, linking up with part one in the romantic examination of the idealised natural environment that the islanders-turned-workers hold in their heads in contrast with the place they now exist in (and never appear to leave). Their desire to return to their apparently devastated home is the dramatic driver.

There are also character developments in this part of Further Than the Furthest Thing that return to the generational divide in which the indecisive Francis refuses to remember the island or believe in returning to it, accepting instead the new life and career opportunities a much larger world can offer. Harris and this production present a gloomy picture of the factory world but cast no particular judgement about the choice Francis and unseen others make to stay in England. By contrast, Mill clings to the physicality of the place she once lived in a dreamlike speech in which she refuses to accept the ruin of everything she knew without seeing it for herself and determines to fund a return trip. And it is at this point that revolving slowly on the central stage at the Young Vic, Harris’s doom-laden story finally reveals itself as Mill quietly confesses the recent history of this romanticised place and the human choice from which the suffering of this community has emerged and turned against them.

Harris tells a long and complex story filled, in this production at least, with a somewhat incomplete balance between Christianity and the supernatural, the power of industrialisation and nature, remote and urban living. The depth of these debates is partially sacrificed to plot and character resolution, providing firm answers where perhaps a little ambiguity would be valuable. The changing tone is very engaging though in Tang’s production, making the audience work hard to keep up with the shifting sands of the narrative and involved in these concepts of good and evil, along with who is being punished and why. It is an elusive drama at times but one that has a cumulative power, captivating in its scant physical detail a vast conceptual framework particularly when the different strands of the story come together and characters attempt to come to terms with what they have done.

There are tones of Yaël Farber in the production choices and aesthetic, staged on a slow revolve designed by Gilmour, the first Act being largely representative, with four chairs and actors ever present around the room. This creates space for their relationships to grow while implying the expanse of the beautiful island vista with mountains and the sea that are left to the audience’s imagination while creating enough room for shadows to fall that alter the viewers perspective on this supposed idyll as the drama unfolds. Act Two is far more proscribed by Gilmour with crescent two-tier bars dominating the stage, implying the claustrophobic nature of the factory space as well as doubling for offices and the important boiler room control panel where Bill’s choices eventually confound him.

Jenna Russell leads the drama in the complex presentation of Mill, an almost ethereal character at times who represents the simplicity and beauty of island life but also has a deeply practical, even controlling streak that tries to retain the life she knows. Russell with a soft Scottish accent barely raises her voice in close to three hours of performance, softly inciting others to action, whether it be the nervous Bill holding the warm but fragile eggs that herald so much drama or convincing Francis to stay and marry into the island. The steelier determination of Act Two feels more frenzied but there is both pathos and conviction as Russell calmly reveals the truth about her community.

Bill is more subject to external forces than his wife and Cyril Nri charts a course in which the character becomes overwhelmed by the choices he makes, fearing the Christian retribution that the rumbling sea foretells. His nervousness develops into fear and guilt in the second part of the drama, suddenly thrust into the noisy and chaotic world of the factory, a kind of hell that in Nri’s performance sets a path for inevitable tragedy. Kirsty Rider is also particular good as Rebecca, a character scorned but also beloved, childhood sweethearts with Francis but who suffers uncomplainingly throughout the first act, seeing a far darker perspective on the world than any of her neighbours. But Rebecca undergoes an important transition through the things that are done to her body, and in Rider’s performance, a return to the island is less about salvation than independence and self-sufficiency.

Francis is a harder character to understand, and seems to make choices depending on where he is, wanting to stay on the island when he’s there but happy to forget it ever existed when he’s not. Such extremes of unaccountable behaviour are not an easy thing for Archie Madekwe to navigate but he makes Francis feel convincing, representing the desire to move beyond childhood into another kind of experience. Finally, Gerald Kyd as Mr Hansen is an increasingly empathetic figure who has far more to do in the second part of the play and his own demons to fight for which guilt consumes him eventually.

Like Jerusalem, Further Than the Furthest Thing muses on the rural past that Britain has left behind and the simpler but more fulfilling way of life lost with it. But Harris remains unblinkered about the problematic nature of that lifestyle and the costs of absenting yourself entirely from the world beyond. This Young Vic production exposes some of the unresolved thinking that sits around Harris play but with so many contrasting malevolent forces cutting through the lives of these characters, it will also keep you riveted in your seat wondering how it will all end.

Further Than the Furthest Thing is at the Young Vic until 29 April with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Guys & Dolls – Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre has had most success with its immersive productions, Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which made the best of the flexible space and have created new ways to tell familiar stories by putting the audience at the heart of the action. While the role of the crowd was a little fudged in the Athenian woods, the physicality of the very mob that all the key political figures must appeal to created an additional verve for Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy. Now, the audience become the sinners of downtown New York for the Bridge Theatre’s first ever musical, a show that is sure to be a hit when it officially opens later in the month, with great performances and a Technicolor visual design. But it is the technical management and directorial inventiveness of the production that really underpins its future success.

There has been a major trend for revisiting old musicals in recent years to update their overly romantic sensibilities and, in some cases, return to the original source material to mine the darker and more troubling themes that always lingered beneath the surface. From Regent’s Park Theatre’s Evita and Carousel to West End revivals of Cabaret and more recently Oklahoma!, reimagining the classic musicals has brought depth and invention to a sometimes deeply sentimental genre. Nicholas Hytner’s production of Guys & Dolls, however heads in a slightly more traditional direction, at least in the interpretation, retaining the glossy and glamorous exterior and finding fresh purpose in the excellent and very well managed immersive staging.

As with Hytner’s previous immersive shows, this relies on a series of raised blocks that emerge from the theatre floor in a carefully coordinated sequence that produce the various locations of this story. Designer Bunny Christie has created a road map on the floor of the pit where the immersive audience gather, a series of streets that make up this particular part of the city, Broadway, where most of the action takes place. Suspended above their heads at circle level are traffic lights and neon signs that point to cafes and bars, giving a flavour of 50s New York, a place filled with gamblers, showgirls and the odd Salvation Army mission.

The genius of Christie’s design is in how sections of the floor rise seamlessly to form connected trajectories through which the characters and the story can advance. The earlier Shakespeare productions demonstrated how well these platforms can work, creating a chain of mini stages which allows the cast to travel, but its potential has never been better realised than here in Christie’s design for Guys & Dolls which requires a complex network of perfectly timed blocks to appear, often at different levels and in different configurations running across the length of the pit. It creates staging opportunities in all four corners of the performance area as well, ensuring the seated in the round audience at the various circle levels are also able to engage with the production.

The result is an incredibly satisfying one whatever type of ticket you choose. Christie’s clever combination of building blocks creates street scenes the wind their way at angles across the floor from which characters can enter restaurants, clubs, bars and even a barber’s shop while placing a set of these together forms a larger rectangular playing space in the centre of the room to form the heart of the Hot Box club where Miss Adelaide performs her raunchy stage show or the interior of Sarah Brown’s Mission House where some of the most famous numbers will take place. Christie’s design is endlessly inventive as the story travels briefly to Havana as well as below ground to the New York sewer where Nathan Detroit’s vital craps game takes place.

Most locations are sparsely but suggestively propped to create the right atmosphere and tone for the scenes including pieces of recognisably American street furniture such as the fire hydrant and globe-style lamps to some cabaret tables hinting at a larger nightclub venues, as well as chain ropes that suggest the gantries of the subterranean scene. Lit by Paule Constable, the green-tinge of the city’s underworld is nicely balanced by the bright bulbs of Broadway while the rousing Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat sequence blends both together to create a sparky movement piece with a dreamlike feel that becomes more daring as the number unfolds. Constable has taken inspiration from 50s Hollywood movies in selecting particular tones and clarity of light for this and the club sequences that reference numerous starlet performances from the Golden Age of moviemaking.

More generally, the strong, almost cartoon colours creates a hyper-reality that allows the characters to be bold and brash, larger-than-life creations living in a colour pop world. There’s no deep moralising or attempt to reconcieve the show for a twenty-first century audience, but instead the design and production choices lean into the overtly comic and overtly romantic themes of the story, facilitating a space in which both can exist side-by-side. This is a sanitised version of both love and crime, where only one of the gamblers carries a gun and the worse thing any of these men do is keep a woman waiting for 14-years to get married. And it works, allowing the excitement of the unexpected staging arrangements to add novelty without overhauling the story.

The show itself is, like many classic musicals, about whether you should change for love. And pleasingly, this one focuses on changing the men. Neither Miss Adelaide or devoted Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah require a Sandy from Grease overhaul and it is their gambler beaux who must prove themselves worthy of the women they eventually realise they love more than their wild late night life. While what’s on offer is largely a traditional future with themes of settling down, staying home every night and steady dependability, which may not seem like everyone’s idea of a happy ending, Hytner makes a couple of additions that add a more contemporary resonance.

The first is a dance piece set in one of the Havana clubs that Sky Masterson takes Sarah to during their brief trip, a location where men only dance with each other and no other women are seen, the only place in the show where an alternative to the heteronormative perspective is offered. But Hytner also makes Sky one of the dancers, engaging briefly in some intimate caresses with his partner. It’s used as a comic scene to arouse Sarah’s drunken jealous as she starts a chaotic fight with the dancers, but this hint at Sky’s more fluid sexuality is an interesting one, although not followed through anywhere else in the production or in Andrew Richardson’s characterisation. A second addition is more of an addendum to facilitate the individual cast bows as the Hot Box club becomes Adelaides, suggesting a quiet life in the country wasn’t quite what the eternal fiancee wanted after all.

Arlene Phillips and James Cousins’s choreography will invariably sharpen before the Press performance but, like Constable’s lighting scheme, this takes its cue from the jazz ballet style of the classic musicals. Occasionally, due to the thin rectangular shape of the various mini-stages, it feels a little cramped for the dancers which makes it seems as though they are holding back with curtailed stretches and not quite finished lines (perhaps deliberately) but Phillips and Cousins have created some great showbiz numbers on the large central rostrum for the pivotal Luck Be a Lady as well as those staged at Hot Box Club for Miss Adelaide’s saucy performances including A Bushel and a Peck – and this is a musical with consciously sung numbers as part of someone’s profession but also with introspective character monologues and duets where they reflect on their emotional responses and expectations.

It’s very early days but the cast are already having a great time, particularly Daniel Mays in the comic role of Nathan Detroit. Less smooth than Sinatra but perhaps far more human, this is a rare chance for Mays to enjoy a funny man role that is already winning the hearts of the audience while his interpretation of Detroit as a loveable rogue suits the tone of Hytner’s show. Mays also has great chemistry with Marisha Wallace whose Miss Adelaide embraces the sultry numbers and Christie’s beautiful showgirl costume designs. Wallace’s powerful vocal can fill this large room but she balances the professional performer in Miss Adelaide with the long-suffering sweetness of a woman holding out for an apple pie American family.

Lovers Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah Brown and Richardson as Sky Masterson are developing a great chemistry that makes their connection believable, while the comedy scenes in Cuba as Sarah over-imbibes are a lot of fun for both actors. It is an accelerated relationship given the relatively short 2 hour and 40-minute running time so both characters compromise on their principles almost immediately, but there is something lovely in watching them grow towards one another, overcoming their slightly aloof tendencies and merging Schoenmaker’s operatic style with Richardson’s more classic musical vocals. And Cedric Neal is sure to feature in future reviews with a small role as Nicely-Nicely Johnson but delivery of the show’s big number Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat which in combining choreography, staging and performance is a real highlight.

This production of Guys & Dolls is a show that needs to give both the immersive and seated audience an equally rich and entertaining experience while carefully managing the standing participants around the room. The use of ushers and stage managers dressed as New York cops is a great touch, helping them to blend in but with an authority for crowd control that facilitates the changes of set, moves props and actors safely into position and out again, as well as ensuring the seamless running of a piece that is not easy to stage. Hytner’s directorial control of all of this feels just right in a complex show that may tell a glossy and lively story but requires a technical management of the floorspace and a quality control that you really don’t see in other theatres or indeed other immersive shows. Hytner’s production may not take the revisionist approach of other modern musical interpretations but there is plenty of innovation and invention in the staging choices that will set this apart. The Bridge hasn’t always got it right and to some extent every theatre production is a gamble, but this roll of the dice should prove a winner.

Guys & Dolls is at the Bridge Theatre until 2 September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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