Author Archives: Maryam Philpott

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 500 shows. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy.

A Number – Bridge Theatre

A Number - Bridge Theatre (by Johan Persson)

The Bridge Theatre is having far greater success with revivals than it has with new plays, and no problem attracting talented cast and crew to star in them. Both of its immersive Shakespeare productions – Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – have been excellent, while big productions are on the programme for later in the year including wunder-director Marianne Elliott’s version of They Shoot Horses Don’t They and Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman. First though, the Bridge joins both the National Theatre and, as of last week, the Donmar Warehouse in celebrating the work of Caryl Churchill with a short but superb performance of A Number.

It’s notable that two theatres have chosen to stage One Act pieces that, unusually in our era of three-hour-plus marathons, stand alone allowing audiences to be well on their way home by 8.30pm. Far Away at just 45-minutes practically feels over before it has even begun, while here at the Bridge, A Number is just an hour long. Perhaps surprisingly given ticket prices of up to £55, nothing else is scheduled alongside it, with both venues choosing to allow the singular work to speak for itself. It may not feel like value for money based on time spent in the auditorium, but in this case Churchill’s play is definitely small but mighty.

Yet, her work can have a marmite quality, creating quite divisive effects on audiences, so much of the time either you get it or you don’t. But A Number is one of her most straightforward pieces, a fairly simple narrative about a family discovering their eldest son has been cloaned. While the science-fiction surface is an examination of the effects of science on society, a premise Churchill uses to think about the apocalyptic nature of man’s own self-destructive impulses, A Number is really about lies. Across just five scenes, the writer explores the nature of deceit as a father (Salter) betrays his sons in several different ways as information about the true circumstances of their birth and early life is drip-fed to both men and the audience.

It is a clever and well executed premise, one designed to wrong-foot the audience at every turn, opening with an affectionate conversation between father and son taking place soon after the latter has discovered that clones exist. This first scene suggests a terrible miscarriage of justice in which an unknown other has effectively stolen cells from the boy and used them to make unauthorised replicas now living openly and blindly in the world, unaware of each other’s existence. Nothing about this early interaction is suspicious and it seems that Churchill’s intention may be to examine the faceless demands of scientific progress that harvest humanity’s innocence for nefarious purposes.

But that is only half the story and it soon becomes apparent in Polly Findlay’s thriller-like staging that nothing is quite what it seems in this household. A similar tactic occurs in Far Away with book-ended scenes set in a familiar domestic normality that hides (and lies about) the seamier activities beneath the surface, where the corruption of innocence is a major theme. The same occurs in A Number as the son referred to as B2 is forced to know more of his father’s choices as well as the existence of his duplicates which has terrible consequences.

Findlay quite effectively uses a square-shaped rotating set to explore the play’s themes with each new scene set at a 90 degree angle to the one before. In doing so, the audience sees every perspective on the single room in which the entire piece is set, and crucially, each of the four walls that provide the limitations to this domestic sphere in which Salter has maintained a bounded span of control for some years. Designed by Lizzie Clachan the room is exceptionally normal, a living room / diner filled with soft furnishings, family photos and some tiger prints on the wall, all warmed by a bar fire, and unlike previous adaptations that veered towards the clinical, this is a domesticated tragedy in progress. Churchill is interested in the casual monstrousness that lurks beneath the chintzy surface of suburbia, the banality  or perhaps more appropriately the thoughtlessness of evil.

Findlay and Clachan’s rotating set does two important things, it changes the audience’s perspective as each new scene brings further revelation that build into a clearer picture of the people it concerns. So by the end of the play we have seen the room and the circumstances of family life from every angle. But it also reinforces the much discussed effect of cloning in which the created being is the same but different. Salter is asked by each of his children about comparisons with their brothers, and we see they are quite different personalities in the same form. And so it is with the rotated set, what we see in each scene is the same room from a different perspective, creating an increasingly disorientating effect as the story unfolds.

Findlay’s control of the tone is particular impressive, there is something unnerving about the scientific discussions being had in this bland and unexpected environment in the first scene, yet the affectionate relationship between the men seems genuine, encouraging us to feel concerned that their rights have somehow been violated. Over time, Findlay changes the temperature introducing darker notes that build into something far more sinister as the result of the initial revelation is felt across the play. As each new slant is revealed, the mood shifts with it, so worry turns to desperation, anger and foreboding as Churchill slowly and often unceremoniously reveals one crucial revelation in each scene. The return of the room to its original position in scene five is a reset in every sense, with what now seems so clearly a cycle of hope and destruction ominously about to begin again.

At the centre of A Number is the ambiguous figure of Salter, a man who seems racked with concern for the pain his sons newly endure and whose initial instincts are to comfort while demanding legal justice for the misuse of his son’s DNA. Yet, it is never entirely clear whether Salter is telling the truth or why he tells the specific lies he chooses, so many he can barely keep track of them; which son is the original, the fate of his wife, his knowledge of the cloning process and the exact chronology of his son’s childhood are all subject to interpretation as he continues to give deliberately evasive responses. He appears to lack any genuine remorse for his mendacity and there are also suggestions of cruelty to B1 whose night terrors he ignores, a child that Salter decides is not up to scratch by the age of four and simply replaces with an improved copy.

Yet, Salter is also sympathetic, a father desperate for a second chance to put things right – an outcome at the start of the play he appears to have achieved as he and B2 express a mutual love for one another and happy life to date. Salter’s later confrontation with his original son B1 leads to revelations of grief at the death of his wife and a loneliness that haunts the play as a father grapples with his own positive legacy, a need to create a good relationship with his son to guarantee his own future. The momentary pauses between the five scenes which leaves Salter alone in each room configuration offer a contemplative pause, a man isolated and perhaps even abandoned with little left to lose.

The pairing of Roger Allam and Colin Morgan is a savvy one, two dedicated and respected theatre actors who have found a valuable chemistry well ahead of this week’s press night. Allam easily connects with the many conflicting layers within Salter’s character, he is at once a man trying to find a good outcome from past mistakes and someone who lies with astonishing ease. Under pressure, Allam’s Salter runs on, saying almost anything to dilute the confrontation and his culpability for the existence of multiple children, Allam ever treading that fine line between selfishness and parental love by mixing half-truths and outright lies with genuine emotion and bewilderment.

The audience never quite knows if Salter is a good man led astray by grief and a good sales pitch decades before, selling the soul of his child to answer some deep call of fatherhood, or a mercenary man using a disarming scattiness, a failure to remember exact details to malevolently excuse himself from blame while perhaps willfully bringing about a wider destruction to rid himself of the problem. Allam is careful to offer both interpretations within his performance, that keeps the audience guessing about his real motives.

As his antagonist throughout, Colin Morgan offers an equally layered presentation of character, rising to the challenge of playing three different versions of the same man. In each of the five scenes, Morgan alternates between personas, changing accents from two variations of London to play B1 and B2 as each man separately confronts Salter. And it is a play that wastes no time, with Churchill introducing the characters post-revelation requiring the actors to begin mid-argument, already at a pitch of exasperation and confusion.

Each man is given distinction by Morgan with B2 the nervy innocent, trying to accept the new-found truth about his cloned-selves and, at first, trusting his father’s explanation with a credulousness that is increasingly naive. The confounded approach hardens in Morgan’s creation of B1 who introduces an important note of latent violence, of the possibility of physical harm as he intimidates the father who betrayed him. Each of the characters is given two scenes so Morgan finds consistency in his characterisation, switching between them relatively quickly as the responses of both men to their father creates further tension once the brothers become aware of each other’s existence. The subtle hints of the Cain and Abel struggle in Churchill’s work and man’s desire to be somehow individually unique are brilliantly elucidate by Morgan in a varied and gripping performance.

A Number packs a lot of themes, meaning and ideas into just an hour of stage time in a production that asks big questions about scientific progress, human regeneration, parenting and legacy. Churchill is concerned here with the mysteries lurking beneath a sheen of civilisation and how quickly things unravel once the veneer is shattered to reveal further deceits. With performances by two very fine stage actors, Findlay’s production asks us to look beyond the simple dichotomy of nature or nature because the advent of medical interventions into the reproductive process, designer babies and genetic modification leaves us wondering whether human individuality exists at all, and how do we control who we become?

A Number is at the Bridge Theatre until 14 March with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Leopoldstadt – Wyndhams Theatre

Leopoldstadt - Wyndhams Theatre (by Marc Brenner)A new play by Tom Stoppard is quite the occasion, a writer long since regarded as one of the UK’s foremost dramatists – a title he may have to scuffle over with David Hare of course. Yet, with writers of such seniority, their output is always compared to some previous golden age, a period in which they created the plays that made their name and are now regarded as hallowed modern classics. You only need casually glance at the work of Alan Bennett, Hare and even Stoppard himself in the last five years to feel the glow of merely lukewarm praise, of critical respect, reverence even, for the man and his legacy but little enthusiasm for the show in front of them.

And Stoppard’s most recent play was in 2015, a head-scratchingly taxing and over-intellectualised examination of the intricacies of human consciousness called The Hard Problem, but Leopoldstadt, only his second play in 10-years, is something else entirely, a much publicised personal story that sees the writer return to form as a commentator of cultural, social and historical patterns, reminding us that with the right topic and a clear vision, he can still write compelling drama… mostly. For Leopoldstadt coincides with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the recent Holocaust Memorial Day.

After a two-week preview period, Press Night takes place this week and given that it is a topic we see so rarely on stage (far more often on film where the experience is more easily explored), Stoppard’s play is a rare and ambitious undertaking. So there are two quite separate questions to consider – does it have something important to add to our collective understanding of this period of history and is it good drama?

The play does not offer a straightforward narrative about the inception, causes and aftermath of the Holocaust, there are no scenes in the ghettos or concentration camps, no acts of physical violence in a period we should already know well, as the timeline of fascism and its monstrous consequences resonate throughout the 1930s and Second World War. Instead, Stoppard is concerned with context, the long history of social isolation, as well as the political and financial suspicion inflicted on Jewish businessmen, intellectuals and families throughout the nineteenth and early twenty-century. It is a context that Stoppard evokes with skill in Act One as an extended family gather at Christmas in 1899 to consider the possibilities of a new century and again in 1900 as the first signs of change are felt.

It is important to note that Stoppard’s story is very particularly situated within the bourgeois of Vienna, that this is a family of means, of education and cultural enrichment who have access to the upper echelons of local society in what is a comfortable, relatively easy existence. Thus the shadow of the titular Leopoldstadt, a ghetto in the very heart of Vienna, weighs heavy over the play, simultaneously indicating in 1899-1900 how far the family have climbed and how close they always are to losing everything, especially when they cannot realise it. And you don’t have to wait too long to hear its name as Hermann Merz, the patriarch of Stoppard’s story and the owner of the beautiful house in which the entirety of the action takes place, describes when Jews were once confined to it, not in future of the 1930s but earlier in his lifetime.

History we know repeats itself, and Stoppard’s play shows how painfully often this has happened to the Jewish population of Europe. We are made to feel sharply in Act One that the social rise from Leopoldstadt to semi-acceptance and prosperity and back again to Leopoldstadt is the work of only a couple of generations, how frighteningly fast the political phases of a nation can wax and wane. Stoppard is intricately concerned with the superficiality of assimilation and the genetic inheritance of faith and experience that so dominated Nazis categorisation. And in doing so, he exposes the duel undercurrents of earned social value and temporary patriotism that conflict his characters when logic, fairness and reason hit squarely against the continued “otherness” of this family that manifests as enduring limitations on their freedom.

This is explored in two especially good conversations that bookend the play; the first is in Act One as brothers-in-law Hermann and Ludwig debate their achievements and civic aspirations. The integrationist Hermann has married a Christian woman and been baptised, believing entirely that his achievements and behaviour will eventually grant him and his children the absolute equality and respect he craves from his Aryan neighbours. He has made himself one of them in every possible way. By contrast, mathematician and university Professor Ludwig believes the opposite, that all attempts at social climbing are permanently stymied by their faith and family origins, that others will always perceive their Jewishness first whatever else they may have to contribute.

It is an entirely Stoppardian conversation, one that unites the forces of science and cultural endeavor as an insight into human behaviour and systems of trust which, although fact-laden, is written as a credible  debate between two intellectual men trying to understand their place in the world, a tussel you feel they have had many times before.

The second conversation comes at the end of the play as descendants of these men meet a decade after the war to find their once close family and shared history is now scattered and partially forgotten. Broken by his experience in the camps and having lived through all the brutality and degradation the Nazis could inflict, Nathan meets his relative Leo who escaped to London with his mother in 1938 and is now an English gentleman in every respect. Leo’s knowledge of the war, disinterestedness in his family’s experience and unwillingness to even recognise their shared identity is eventually eroded by Nathan who probes at Leo’s memory in order to broker that lost connection in his mind. The “otherness” in this sense then becomes a shared experience of faith and blood, Leo’s being (now) English with no physical experience of being there, for Stoppard, is no excuse for ignorance.

You may think it is a strange choice not to stage the Holocaust itself and instead to cover Kristallnacht and then leap ahead to 1955, yet what Stoppard is doing is exploring heritage, the expansion and erasure of family over time but within which the (hopeful) seeds of continuation remain. Leopoldstadt is really a conversation the playwright is having with himself about the tide of affairs across the early to mid-twentieth century and how the experience of Jewish families should be analysed and commemorated through patterns of interaction, memory and the physical rites of faith, enacted as much for their religious significance as for their habitual existence in gathering families together, a fact Ludwig is the first to grasp in Act One.

This is what makes Leopoldstadt so interesting and its success as drama is almost secondary to the question the playwright asks of himself about what it means to be Jewish in the twenty-first century, and as the political sands once again shift to the insular where all kinds of otherness are feared, how long, even after something as scarring and inexplicable as the Holocaust, can peace and assimilation really last?

But drama is the medium Stoppard has chosen for this discussion and while compelling, the Second Act suffers from over-complication as the younger generation and a largely new cast are introduced. Directed by Patrick Marber (himself a renowned writer), there is a wonderful immersiveness to the first Act as lives, love affairs and interactions of all kinds go on in fairly typical fashion, much of which is hugely enjoyable, well written and more relevant to the later plot that the audience can yet know. But, as the story lurches forward to 1924, 1938 and 1955, we feel less and less grounded in the individual lives of the family. 1924 is a particular failure and regardless of the projected family tree at the start of the play, it becomes almost impossible to keep track of who everyone is and how they relate back to Hermann and Ludwig.

Perhaps it isn’t supposed to matter but if Stoppard dangles a family tree in front of an audience it does suggest the specifics of “who” actually matter far more than they really do in the play and after investing so credibly in the characters in Act One, it becomes a little difficult to follow exactly what is going on and why. This decision is not aided by the mixed approach to casting where some actors play their same character into old age while others appear in multiple roles which makes it even harder to keep track especially from the circle and balcony where you can barely see the faces of the actors anyway.

Adrian Scarborough is such an asset to any Company and of the few fully fleshed-out roles his Hermann is easily the most interesting and sympathetic. A man navigating the duties of husband, father and business owner with his own desire to find acceptance in the social hierarchy is full of fascinating variation. You feel for him especially during the events of the second half of the play as dreams and stratagems are broken by the virulent forces of Antisemitism, but Scarborough’s Hermann remains hopeful and on one especially pleasing occasion, cunning.

If this play is about legacy, then the inclusion of Ed Stoppard in the cast as Ludwig is symbolic and meaningful. The character represents the rise of intellectualism and cultural expansiveness built on the logic and consistency of the mathematician. Ludwig looks for theories but recognises and accepts his outsider status which Stoppard Junior delivers credibly and, while his contribution to later scenes are too limited, the interior devotion to home and place is quietly and sadly portrayed.

These days, when is a Company not bolstered by the inclusion of Luke Thallon, and after wonderful performances in Pinter Five and Present Laughter, he adds texture to this production with roles as a suave dragoon guard whose Aryan self-assuredness offers an important contrast in Act One with its own codes of honour, while later the innocent cluelessness of 1950s Leo gives rise to a growing rumble of wry laughter from the audience as he avows faith in the British institutions of Parliament, Royalty and Britain’s care for refugees. There is a small but impassioned role for Sebastain Armesto as Nathan who describes the ultimate fate of his family with sensitivity while reeling from the wanton ignorance of Leo that provokes as much anger in Armesto’s interpretation as it does bewilderment.

Notably absent from this role call of key performances are any female actors, and while there are many in the show, their roles unfortunately are lightweight and fairly unremarkable, with only Faye Castelow’s Gretal (Hermann’s wife) a character who noticeably recurs for reasons other than her existence as a mother to the next generation. Such failings add to the earlier-described dramatic issue with the construction of a play that foregrounds the wider context – and most specifically the experience of men – over the detail of family life. Nonetheless, Leopoldstadt has feeling as well as intellect, a very personal reflection on who Stoppard is and what he wants to leave behind. It is a play that above all reminds us that the leap from surface inclusion to decimation is not so far as we’d like to imagine. We are history and history is us, lest we forget.

Leopoldstadt is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 13 June with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

 


Endgame and Rough for Theatre II – The Old Vic

Endgame - Old Vic

It is a great time for Samuel Beckett fans, a highly acclaimed triple bill is running at the Jermyn Street Theatre and this week the Old Vic adds a double bill of Endgame and Rough for Theatre II which opens to the press tomorrow, welcoming Daniel Radcliffe back to the theatre where his starring role in Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet homage three years ago was warmly received. Joining him after more than a decade away from the West End is Alan Cumming lured back to London by these less-frequently performed Beckett works and Matthew Warchus’s theatre which is enjoying an exceptional run of form.

For some time now, the Old Vic has programmed a series of unmissable hits while attracting some of the biggest stars of stage and screen. The superb All My Sons last April was the highlight of a much wider presentation of Arthur Miller’s work and starred West End debutantes Bill Pullman, Sally Field and Jenna Coleman alongside theatre devotee Colin Morgan. Noel Coward was given a spritz of modern spice and morality with an outstanding version of Present Laughter with an exemplary Andrew Scott at the helm which was then replaced by stars of The Crown, Claire Foy and Matt Smith who have earned a Broadway transfer for parental drama Lungs. And with Timothee Chalamet appearing with Eileen Atkins in their next play 4000 Miles, the Old Vic is almost unrivaled in its shrewd combination of modern twentieth and twenty-first century classics with all-star casts.

Rough for Theatre II

Beckett, then, should be in safe hands and the evening begins with Rough For Theatre II, a slight drama in length if not in meaning. At only 25-minutes this is a little performed if engrossing piece as two bureaucrats debate the life and worth of a suicide case to determine whether or not the man should jump. Like Pinter, Beckett’s choices are very specific, using vocabulary, sentence structure, movement and stage directions to create a precise and controlled effect, choosing at what point the actors move or react to the slowly changing perspective within the story.

Here in Rough for Theatre II, designer Stewart Laing sets the entire piece on a small apron appended to the front of the stage in front of the main curtain where two small square desks and chairs face each other on opposite ends of the room. Each symmetrical desk has a lamp which becomes integral to the plot while the centre is dominated by a figure standing on the precipice of an open window – the entire effect has a soulless American classic theme, a place of formality and governance, but also of emptiness and hopelessness.

Laing simultaneously creates space and confinement around the three figures, suggesting the official distance of executive authority that allows the two men to speak with distracted formality, almost dismissal while arguing for the man’s death, yet the narrowed playing space, the long thin strip of stage at the same time moves the characters into each other’s space to clearly uncomfortable effect. It is briskly managed and Richard Jones as director emphasises the emotional interior of the antagonists while exploring the shifting relationship between them as it considers their pride in their work, attention to minutiae, individual fears and growing frustrations.

Character A who is sometimes known as Bertrand, played here by Radcliffe, is entirely at ease with himself and his role in determining Character C / Croker’s fate, while cross-questioning and redirecting his colleague with a quiet authority. Playing the straighter role here, the characterisation could appear fairly one-sided but Radcliffe hints at Bertrand’s discomfort at Morven’s physical proximity when circumstance force them together, but intriguingly feels no similar concern as he daringly hangs from the window-frame to observe Croker.

By contrast Cumming’s Character B / Morven is more highly strung, nervy and easily distracted from his purpose by faulty wiring, the unduly elaborate grammar of witness statements and a notional attraction to Bertrand. Sporting a slightly exaggerated version of his natural Scotch, Cumming squirms and rages, the opposite of Radcliffe’s placidity which ties the two characters inexorably together as they explore the ‘organic waste’ of life. It’s short but filled with meaningful phraseology that references death, how easily life is reduced to accumulated paragraphs of evidence and the implacable nature of fate.

Endgame

After an interval, Laing’s new set for Endgame marries domesticity with post-apocalyptic doom in a grey walled structure very similar to Soutra Gilmour’s boxy set for Betrayal. The characters are enclosed or, more appropriately, entombed in the room of an empty but still recognisable home with small curtained windows raised high in the wall that gives a basement or prison-feel to the piece while offering plenty of comic potential when these portals to the equally gloomy but unseen exterior are accessed. The room is completed with a central armchair and two steel-grey wheelie bins carved into the stage-front.

Endgame is a strange and difficult absurdist play which runs at approximately 85-minutes as a master and servant play-out what seem to be a repetitive routine while believing their story is soon to end for the last time. There is no plot as such, nor really chapters to mark different stages of the play, so instead Beckett creates a flow of interactions that mix tales of past and present told from the perspective of different characters, while examining the isolation and loneliness that seeks forms of companionship and storytelling as the last refuge of the human condition. What you feel so strongly in this play is how repeated requests for silence and peace are always overcome by the need to interact, to be heard even in the crotchety exchanges between men who have lived together too long.

In this second piece, Jones changes the tone entirely and instantly a pin-drop silence falls over the auditorium as the strangeness of the scenario is felt before it is understood. And across the play there is a cyclical action as the characters explore the connectedness of life and death, with the one naturally leading back to the other. This means that although the chair-bound Hamm and his servant Clov repeatedly express a desire to terminate their mutually-dependent association, they are forever unable to really do so.

A sense of repetition dogs the play from the start as Clov mechanically moves between the windows attempting to draw the curtains while forgetting the stepladder or failing to remember he has performed the task before – an amusing opening that eases the audience into the slightly strange existence of these men. But there is also a feeling of routine, of how frequently the characters have performed the same action or had the same conversation, as if by rote each day. This happens at several points through the stories they tell one another in which endings seem impossible such as the tailor unable to complete a pair of trousers and as Clov wheels his master around the room, bringing scraps of food and amusement.

Time, therefore, punctuates their interaction with Hamm frequently asking whether his ‘pain pills’ are due, knowing when the next chapter of his story is ready to be unveiled and in a more pointed reference to the passing minutes an alarm clock is introduction to signify the end of their time together. Beckett’s love of ambiguity never allows the audience to know whether this is just another day enacting the same unchanging routine or whether their pattern and interaction has degraded over time and is indeed in its final phase. There are multiple suggestions that humanity itself is at an end, with only ‘gloom’ and no living creatures, no sign of nature or climate beyond the walls where impossibility of species regeneration is clear. Jones suggests they could be the last humans alive merely passing the time until the end releases them all for good.

As Hamm, Cumming offers a quite fascinating performance, a character playing a one-sided game of chess in which he will be both the ultimate winner and its loser as he undergoes various changes in mood across the period of the play. Hamm can be many things all at once, charming and likeable, a suggestion of a interesting active life lived long ago, but also demanding, spoiled and entitled, determined to assert his knowing authority over his servant while never wanting to appear at any disadvantage from his inability to walk or see. Cumming plays him almost as a stream of consciousness, a rambling association of stories, demands and thoughts that fluidly shift and expand as he becomes more talkative.

There is also a more existential strand to Hamm, musing on the nature of his life and its meaning that draws out an unexpected softness. There is a subtle fathers and sons theme with Hamm needing the interaction with his father – Nagg (an excellent and meaningful Karl Johnson) – who lives in one of the bins and is enticed out to engage with his son, or more accurately to listen to his speechifying in return for edible rewards. Theirs is a difficult relationship, one which the elder evidently regrets but neither can relinquish. This is given a greater depth when Hamm indicates that Clov is almost a son to him, someone for whom he feels responsibility and even care for a fleeting moment as Cumming introduces plenty of light and shade, finding a softer, needier dimension to Hamm who recognises the necessity of others to his own stability, even if he cannot wholly reconcile or admit those feelings to himself or them.

It is impossible to be anything but impressed by the theatre and film choices that Daniel Radcliffe has made in recent years, and it’s always abundantly clear on stage how hard he works in preparing and exploring his characters. He was excellent – and very funny – as Rosencrantz in 2017, while his Clov here in Endgame is a much more physically demanding role that requires a crooked shape and inability to bend at the knees that affects his walk and posture throughout the play. There is something of the obsequious horror-film butler about Clov, an oddity whose relentless plod and awkward way with a stepladder allows Radcliffe to indulge in some broader comic tics that make his character both strange and sympathetic.

It is also a smart performance, and one that draws out Clov’s growing irritation at Hamm’s demands. The intellectual battles between master and servant are reasonably one-sided and Radcliffe finds all the resentful duty that his character feels in being unable to resist any demands. Yet this Clov also knows there is power in his presence and the threat of removing himself from Hamm is his only means of control, one that grows as Radcliffe’s Clov becomes increasingly frustrated with his own behaviour as the play unfolds. The authoritarian dynamic between them is quite different from Rough for Theatre II, but Radcliffe successfully navigates both in another interesting stage appearance.

Like many Theatre of the Absurd pieces (see also the recent Exit the King), these are not easy plays to navigate and Endgame in particular is a challenging watch. Beckett’s work is largely thematic and not something that prioritises narrative or character development which can be tricky if you’re looking for something with a beginning, middle and an end. While Waiting for Godot is the most performed and influential of Beckett’s plays, Jones’s productions are hugely atmospheric with much to be taken from the strangeness of the settings and fine characterful performances which should please Beckett fans as well as providing plenty of thoughtful material for the journey home. Very interesting place the Old Vic at the moment, and these latest revivals suggest that this theatre is far from entering its endgame.

Endgame and Rough for Theatre II are at the Old Vic until 28 March with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Faustus: That Damned Woman – Lyric Hammersmith

Faustus That Damned Woman - Lyric Hammersmith

The lure of immortality has been at the heart of the Faustus legend for centuries and its themes speak to the greed and despicable nature of a man who would sell his soul for so little. But is human nature so easily derided, can a bad deed in fact be used for good, or at least to clear the innocent? Chris Bush’s new version of this ages-old story reimagines Faustus not just as a woman – which has of course been done before – but couches it in the context of witchcraft, plague and the limited promise of Restoration England for the very poorest in society.

Bush’s choices upend the play to a considerable but psychologically satisfying extent, giving Johanna Faustus a true purpose and agency in selling her soul. The action begins with the stage being set for a ritualistic act in which our protagonist is plunged into water in order to see the final moments of her mother’s life, a brutal trial for supposed witchcraft in which her guilt is, of course, already assured by the men examining her. The young Johanna, appalled by her mother’s treatment, still retains a shred of doubt as to her guilt and must satisfy herself on whether she truly worked for the devil.

It is an interesting and well-realised perspective, giving the story a firm context that adds a new depth and purpose to a familiar tale, and in opening-up the female experience of this era it reinforces the decision to switch the gender of the central character – noting subtly that a male and female Faustus would have experienced this century very differently. For this is an era of active persecution for women, a pre-scientific age still dominated by religion where suspicion was easily fed. Director Caroline Byrne creates a sense of the inexplicable particularly well as magic and fear of devilment possess a community.

The doubt which lingers in Johanna’s mind feeds a determination to find proof, a fascination with progress, knowledge and using invention to defeat the idea of the devil, a concept which feeds through the rest of the play. And here in the first Act, the exploration of female powerlessness and supposed culpability is well executed as Bush leads Faustus to the door of a man who desperately wants the devil to appear and uses the female body in various unseemly and thankfully unseen ways to entice Satan to his door where he hopes to exchange his soul for the riches he craves.

That Johanna enters this man’s employ of her own volition and in the full knowledge of his practices suggests she holds few allusions about her own sinful tendencies and this is vital to the duality of the Faustus character in the remainder of the play where determination to do good is scuttled by an essential human weakness as she plots to outmaneuver her hellish master. Likewise, the scene in which Johanna eventually contracts her future is staged as a richly discussed bargain, where Johanna is not foolish enough to give away her essence merely to be sure of her mother’s purity but, like Marlowe’s original, this Faustus also has designs on immortality of a kind.

Bush’s writing in the first half is at its strongest, the contextual information that sets the scene so particularly in 1665 with plague raging and Enlightenment thinking a century ahead grounds Faustus: That Damned Woman and gives its central character a fierce yet historically credible purpose. And the skill with which Bush subtly unpicks and lays bare the attitude towards and the limited opportunities available to women in the Seventeenth-Century is very well achieved, examining the semi-religious notions of Eve’s temptation and the inherently sinful nature of seductive women that were commonly espoused in the literature of this period.

The evident fear and secrecy of the country women who rally to Johanna while protecting her gift as well themselves from detection, and her father’s distrustful warnings about creating medicines from plants once the pair decamp to London for fear of accusation add texture to the play, making sense of and adding justifiable reasoning to Johanna’s determination to summon the devil while seeking to know what better life he offers.

Alas for Faustus, and for the audience, Act Two does not bring the satisfaction we crave and the carefully cultivated intensity of the early scenes is lost in time-travelling confusion as Bush’s scope expands. Much of the second Act focuses on her attempt to achieve her ambition of planting the seeds for good and as Johanna is granted 144 years of further life to be taken at any time, Mephistopheles takes Faustus first two hundred years into the future and then much further. These rapidly changing period settings make the remainder of the play feel less substantial in its attempts to chart both the progress of science – allowing Faustus to achieve the Doctor moniker and pursue a means of cheating death for all of humanity – and the changing position of women since her original era, such that better women than Johanna have used the gifts of intelligence and persistence to earn a place in society without selling their souls.

These rather pointed statements are jarring however, far less delicately woven into the fabric of the play as they were in the sections set in the 1660s. So the encounter with the Britain’s first female medic Dr Garret in the 1860s and later with Marie Curie who she lectures on sharing the spotlight with her husband while despairing the slow advance of women feel clunky and unnatural compared to what has gone before. Later still, the science-fiction influence of the modern day and beyond are imaginative in their consideration of how Faustus may attempt to defeat her fate but somehow feel conceptually empty, merely dress-up reinforced by Johanna’s changing costumes to mark the transition from era to era. The atmospheric drive of Act One is lost amidst conversations that feel diminished just at the point where stakes should be higher and higher as time runs out.

None of this should detract from the vigor and commitment of Jodie McNee’s leading performance that burns with energy from her first entry onto the stage. She is every bit the complex and intriguing Faustus whose righteous outrage for her mother is ever contrasted by her failures to accept her lot or to behave as men expect. It is a hugely enjoyable performance to watch as McNee’s Faustus takes purposeful command of her life in the Seventeenth-Century, refusing to believe that her own free will is entirely at Lucifer’s disposal.

There is a wonderful bloodthirstiness that consumes this Faustus as her powers are first realised, setting out for vengeance against those who have crossed her family, but McNee is particularly adept at showing the strain and befuddlement of good deeds gone wrong, aware of how entirely the devil will interfer, so as the centuries pass away, Faustus becomes consumed by her bigger plans, the effort of which starts to take its toll on her physical and mental stamina, developing a fatigue in McNee’s layered performance that does much to hold together the wayward second half.

The secondary cast work hard in a variety of roles that help to create the intensity of the first Act as well as the time-hopping nature of the rest. Danny Lee Wynter as Mephistopheles and Barnaby Power as Lucifer take a high camp approach to their respective roles, a heavy dose of the dandy that earns some laughs. And while their initial appearance momentarily breaks the atmosphere of solemnity with which the first scenes are played, Wynter develops a wary resignation as the servant resentfully forced to help Faustus while fatalistically knowing her struggle against the devil to be hopeless. Having Lucifer and Johanna’s father played by the same actor wants to add a dimension that could be better explored, and while the play tends to portray men as weak creatures -Tim Samuels is suitably detestable as Faustus’s employer Newbury – Faustus’s devotion to her father yields little insight into his role (and therefore that of the devil) in her mother’s demise and Johanna’s own temptation.

Emmanuella Cole is especially good as the betrayed Katherine, wretchedly tortured in the opening moments of the play that sets the scene well for what follows. Katherine Carlton and Alicia Charles complete the cast, having more success with the small but better written roles of the village women who help prepare Johanna’s original ritual, later conveying their fear as they pretend not to know her, than in the more diluted characterisations given to them in the Twentieth and Twenty-first century scenes.

Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s set design is marvelously inventive, a curved skeletal wall that looks as suitable for the wooden homes of the 1660s as it does for the more futuristic settings later in the play. Its flexibility is enhanced by Ian William Galloway’s video design which projects pattern and texture including what appears to be the inky form of a devilish shadow, and later helps Faustus to rapidly absorb a visual history of the years through which she lives.

The exploration of the black arts and the role of women which so meaningful ties Act One together are lost in the second half where the focus switches entirely to a quest for science to grant eternal life, and although Faustus’s 144-years of life must take her into the future, the loss of that carefully conjured 1660s setting is sadly missed. Doctor Faustus is a play that continues to intrigue us with its tantalising propositions of heaven, hell and immortality – see also last year’s Dark Night of the Soul evenings of female responses to Marlowe’s work – so it is really interesting to see it reimagined with such purpose here by Chris Bush, and by adding the specifically female context of witchcraft it expands Marlowe’s tale to make sense of its re-gendered protagonist. But eventually every Faustus must concede the inevitability and invincibility of death, and whether you give your soul to God or the devil no science or magic can bring eternal life.

Faustus: That Damned Woman is at Lyric Hammersmith until 22nd February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 

 


Uncle Vanya – Harold Pinter Theatre

Uncle Vanya - Harold Pinter Theatre (by Johan Persson)

“Life is the same only worse,” a sentiment that seems to reflect so much about our mood in the last few years, spoken by Uncle Vanya in Conor McPherson’s new version of the play. Notably departing from Chekhov’s original here and there, this adaptation, which has a little settling to do ahead of its Press Night later this week, emphasises the comedy scenarios and personalities in Chekhov’s timeless play while still drawing out its major themes – ageing, purposelessness, the challenge of intellectualism in rural societies and, modern audiences may be surprised to note, even climate change.

Uncle Vanya is a play that rarely leaves the West End for long with at least three major productions in a decade. In fact, Chekhov has felt very much in vogue of late with several productions in the last few years taking illuminating approaches to his best-known works. Famously heavy-going and often encased in oppressive sets and stifling costume, a new wave of directors and designers have liberated the emotional undercurrents that thrum through Chekhov’s plays, a fragile humanity clinging to existence and lost in the travails of daily life. The clarity of these new directional approaches is finally cutting through the period fustiness in which his work had been too long preserved.

Ian Rickson’s latest attempt essentially situates Uncle Vanya in a similar social and political existence as last year’s sensational Rosmersholm. A vast, light-filled room on a sizeable estate outside of which the world is struggling; the local community are poverty-stricken and plagued by illness while in the house long-buried emotions rise to the surface prompted by and maypoled around the arrival of Yelena, wife to Vanya’s brother The Professor, staying temporarily to complete his latest paper. Like Rosmersholm, Rickson lays bare the intricacies of the household, its politics, familial resentments, assumptions and buried passions as the characters contemplate lives of unfulfillment in which endurance rather than happiness is their only satisfaction.

But McPherson’s approach is far lighter than the themes of the play might suggest, recognising not just that audiences want to be entertained as well as moved, but also that Chekhov’s work has always had its skewering moments of social satire that examine the ridiculous pomposity of individuals or situations. McPherson emphasises the lightly comic overtones to Acts One and Two by giving Vanya a clown-like levity as he criticises the dry scholastic achievements of his brother and, in Act Two, enjoys a a period of drunken revelry with neighbour Dr Astrov and dependent Telegin, a well-managed high-point in a show that finds humour wherever it can.

This focus also gives this adaptation a more relaxed feel than previous attempts, thereby creating a more credible group dynamic among the various residents, guests and visitors to the family, people long established in each other’s company who descries the stiff conventions of polite society that so often govern interactions in Chekhov productions. McPherson applies this in equal measure to the language in his script and while the characters are not quite speaking in colloquial patterns, the formality and artificiality of traditional language is something McPherson eschews in favour of a more natural selection of words and phrases. It is a subtle but meaningful decision that trades the sometimes archaic construction of most translation for an everyday speech that once again reflects and reinforces the over-familiarity of these people with one another.

Humour, then, runs to a degree throughout the play and while the conversations naturally darken as the dramatic currents are resolved (or as much as Chekhov’s characters earn any form of resolution), McPherson gives the audience the opportunity to laugh at the ridiculousness of extreme behaviours, especially when Vanya and the Professor go head-to-head in Act Three. Yet, ahead of Press Night, there is a downside to this approach which sometimes cuts into the emotional subplots and dramatic intensity. This is not, for example, a production that feels like a grand tragedy with even some of the significant emotional revelations and confrontations provoking smatterings of laughter. McPherson writes these elements well – and perhaps controversially gives three characters brief monologues to the audience to explore how they are reduced and caged by the events of the play – but as the balance tends primarily to the comic, it comes slightly at the expense of its other drivers.

For Uncle Vanya – like many of Chekhov’s plays – is ultimately about the essential nature of people and their inability to escape the confines of themselves. They talk frequently of freedom, the hopeful future ahead, the joys of nature and better lives in the cities they will never go to, but their existence is bound by the room in which they stand. Drama, respite and ultimately self-realisation comes from the introduction of characters temporarily taken out of their rightful context and here, in Rickson’s production, duel ripples are created by the regular visits of Dr Astrov and, more determinedly, by the presence of Yelena.

The core individuals in this play are seeking some kind of release or escape from the frustratingly ordinary routines of their daily life by looking to others who fail to observe their emotional needs, a strand to which McPherson and Rickson bring considerable clarity. Passions are deeply felt but isolated and unrequited for the most part, the object of their affection does nothing to instigate or encourage a feeling they don’t return or even notice. Sonya’s six-year affection for Astrov, Vanya and Astrov’s infatuation with Yelena are all doomed, with much to say about the blindness of characters to see beyond their own state or truly read the feelings of others. The selfish and arguable lack of empathy with which this group view one another is striking here and it is only through rejection that self-realisation is possible for each of them. Ultimately Chekhov argues, no one can save you but yourself.

And while comedy dominates, the emotional heart of this version of Uncle Vanya, surprisingly is not the sweet but insipid affection of Sonya who cannot even speak of her feelings, or the ephemeral presence of the sleepwalking Yelena, but it is the reawakening of Dr Astrov whose dormant connection to the present is full-bloodedly revived. From the first moments of the play we glimpse something broken in Astrov, almost a hint of PTSD emerging from the terrible medical sights he’s seen and his recent failure to save a particular life that haunts him. The middle of a struggle is a tough place for an actor to begin, but Richard Armitage perfectly hits the intense sadness and interior confusion that introduce the tragic doctor to the audience in the earliest moments of this play.

Astrov is a man who cannot bear to live in the present, and looks only to surviving his lot in order to play his part in a better future, a frequent refrain being the improved quality of life the population a century hence will enjoy which brings him an existential comfort. His attempts to stem the tide of local deforestation erupt in lively exclamations from Armitage who blossoms through his enthusiasm for nature, while acutely living without love or purpose within his day-to-day profession.

Having shut-down all emotional responses or belief in personal happiness, Armitage is especially good at showing Astrov’s complete indifference to Sonya, not only avoiding her evident feelings but seeming to have no knowledge of them at all. So passion, when it does come, surprises and confounds him as entirely as it consumes. It burns slowly at first, a few shy glances in Act One at Yelena, as though testing his ability to withstand it, before erupting into something more fervent and soulful as he urges her to acknowledge the feeling between them. Armitage is wonderful and moving in his distress, forced to repack his armour by the end of the play, almost perplexed by his own conduct and the emotions that momentarily and so violently poured forth. His experience is really the emotional centre of the production and a meaningful return after a five year stage hiatus.

Toby Jones’s Vanya has to navigate quite different extremes of character, layering a sheen of foolishness over the inner turmoil his character experiences in the early sections of the play. Obsessed with the advancing years at 47 and what in retrospect appears to be a wasted life, this put-upon Vanya jokes and blunders his way through various conversations, always assuming the role as family jester. Jones enjoys the comedy easing the audience into the play with warmly received asides and sarcastic jibes that emphasise his displeasure but only reinforce the set structure in which the family has organised itself, working to support the Professor as the most intellectually gifted.

It is only later in the play that this Vanya shakes off those expectations and stakes a claim to an estate that he has worked hard to maintain, a moment that surprises others with its ferocity and hysteria. Jones and Ciaran Hinds’s arrogantly self-serving Professor have a bitter conflagration, one of the production’s most dramatic but enjoyably staged sequences. Within the performance, Jones could do a little more to seed these frustrations earlier to make sense of the scale of Vanya’s reaction here and the same with Vanya’s oft-declared love for Yelena which seems less deeply felt than the production implies, leaving the audience appreciating her exasperation with the slightly empty neediness that Vanya exudes. The tonal approach tips the balance slightly too far into the comedy, fractionally drawing intensity away from the crescendo of desperation and unhappiness that mark Vanya’s final transition later in the play.

The female leads contrast well as Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya suggests an unimposing innocence that prevents her from attaining her dream of being Mrs Astrov. Sonya is ever the peace-maker, attentive, capable and kind but Wood aptly demonstrates her lack of courage, her failure to find a strong insistent voice that can take charge of the squabbles around her or even to fight for a different kind of life for herself, instead preferring resignation and acceptance. Rosalind Eleazar’s Yelena is by contrast an accidentally destructive force and clearly marked out from the others by a quite different style of dress that simultaneously embraces but pretends to ignore her sexuality. This Yelena drifts abstractedly from room to room, suffocating in the country air and barely able to exist, yet is equally unmoved, bored even by the ardent attentions of others that she seems to feel have nothing to do with her. There is neither encouragement nor censure in Eleazar’s measured, dreamlike performance that creates a riveting otherness in Yelena with only the smallest hint of untrammeled depths in the play’s final scenes.

With no scene changes, Rae Smith’s painterly design, lit beautifully by Bruno Poet, is full of rundown charm, a great house fallen to disrepair but full of comfort and solace. The streaming sunlight through the large windows adjoined by the forest that forces its way into the house reflect the play’s themes while, as the drama unfolds, the ensuing darkness and change of seasons is visibly reflected when summer gives way to autumn in every sense. This Uncle Vanya is more roundedly entertaining than other recent productions and while that detracts a little from the emotional undercurrents of the original, the fluidity and richness of Rickson’s production, performed by an excellent cast, ensure a satisfying Chekhovian conclusion where life, as Vanya states, is the same but worse.

Uncle Vanya is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until the 2nd May with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 

 


%d bloggers like this: