Category Archives: London

The King – London Film Festival

Timothee Chalamet in The King, Netflix

It’s Shakespeare but not as we know it; in recent years film adaptions of the Bard’s best-known plays have parted from a more-traditional focus on language to explore the psychological experience of the principle character, as well as giving exciting new life to the battles that define the action. Particularly notable, in 2015 Justin Kurzel redefined the Shakespeare adaptation with a powerful and purposeful two-hour Macbeth with some of the most visually beautiful battle scenes seen on film, and brought a dark, massing intensity to the unfolding narrative that is as close to live performance as you can get with a camera. Now, another Australian and his American co-writer have taken an entirely modern approach to Henry V that doesn’t use a single word of Shakespeare’s text.

Sacrilegious is may be, even “blasphemous” as director David Michôd apologetically described it at the opening of The King at the London Film Festival, but it works. The Henriad Trilogy has been tackled many times on screen with looming version of Henry V by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, plus a respectable BBC version of all three plays with Tom Hiddleston as part of The Hollow Crown series. And on stage the list gets even longer with celebrated performances from Jamie Parker at the The Globe, Alex Hassell for the RSC and a well reviewed Michael Grandage production with Jude Law, all in recent years – the one thing we’re never short of is Henrys.

But these were all distinctly British in their outlook – regardless of the media, this has always been a British story told by British actors within the British theatre, film and television industry. Fascinating then to see a version of this most English (and Welsh) of medieval heroes translated and reflected back to us by our Antipodean and Atlantic cousins. The result is an entirely new screenplay by Michôd and Joel Edgerton that respectfully uses the architecture of Shakespeare’s play but refocuses the overarching narrative to consider the delicate political balance of a new ruler and the weight of shoring-up a new crown in a precarious international environment of betrayal, manipulation and intrigue.

There is both a sense of freedom in Michôd and Edgerton’s film that allows the characters to breath away from the wonderful but nonetheless precise confinement of Shakespeare’s language, and a rare opportunity to delve deeper into the play as well as adding a new spin to some of the characters and scenarios that allow the actors to build their roles more conclusively without the shadow of all those stage Falstaffs, Dauphins and Henrys. There is an energy in the film that suggests a sense of thoughts unfolding naturally and spontaneously before us, and of cause and effect in a movie where all actions and decisions have visible consequences for everyone else.

The departures from and elaborations on Shakespeare’s story are some of The King’s most engaging and memorable aspects; the treachery subplot given only one angry revelation scene in Henry V is expanded, drawing attention to the close council of men around the new king to explore the depth of the betrayal. And, interestingly, this is depicted as part of a longer campaign by the French Dauphin to goad the fledgling English monarch into a costly war that he cannot win.

In this way, Michôd and Edgerton also suggest a far stronger sense of the political machinations at work in the new court as the older counsellors – who served his father – seek to shape the reign of Henry V with their own anti-French, pro-war agenda. These are additions that later set the monarch on a post-war collision course with those who shaped his mind and is a welcome and well-considered opening-out of Shakespeare’s story that shifts the central narrative on its axis to offer a new and intriguing perspective.

Similar adjustments also provide an alternative view of Henry’s approach to monarchy and diplomatic relations that add depth to the characterisation; the famous tennis balls scene which stokes Henry’s ire and shows his underlying belligerence is here reframed so he dismisses the gesture, refusing to summon-up the uncontained response the Dauphin requires, and nor is this Henry convinced by the complex Salic Law discussion that should place him on the French throne, amusingly calling-out its confusion and actively rejecting his own claim.

Alongside a more purposeful concept of the Dauphin’s attempts to provoke Henry into a war he never wanted-  rather than the dynastic quest to feed his own ambition which Shakespeare implies – there is an idea of events being outside Henry’s control, almost of a pacifist forced into fighting against his better judgement. We see this particularly in the early civil war scene as the then Prince Hal stops his younger brother’s army taking on Hotspur’s rebellion by challenging Percy to single combat in lieu of a fuller fight. War to this character is a last resort and not a light undertaking. Watching Henry navigate his reluctant kingship is one of the film’s most enjoyable and inventive aspects.

The other major alteration which may ruffle Shakespearean purists is the inclusion of Sir John Falstaff in England’s warring party, in fact the portly and drunken companion of the Henriad Trilogy and beyond is entirely revised to instead become a war hero and chief strategist during the invasion of France, encouraging the king to practice restraint where other counsellors want rash action. With Edgerton playing the role himself, naturally Falstaff becomes far more heroic than previously seen, dispensing sage and fatherly advice. During these sections of the film the creators momentarily forget that it was Henry’s perspective the audience was following and put Falstaff centre stage instead, but it is an interpretation that works pretty well in the context of the story they are telling, and pleasingly makes us look afresh at this vital relationship between the two men.

As Prince Hal / Henry V Timothée Chalamet pitches his performance pretty well, right down to the really very good English accent. He may not be an obvious choice for the warrior king among the more strapping Henrys of the stage but his slight frame and very youthful look fit extremely well into an adaptation that emphasises inexperience and naivety. And Chalamet offers plenty of both, along with a disdain for his father and the duplicity of the courts that provides valuable context for Henry’s different approach to kingship that becomes a key motivational driver throughout.

He is less convincing as the drunken wastrel Prince Hal in the early part of the movie – although the paternal resentment and familial strife are credible enough – but as Henry grows in stature as a king so too does Chalamet’s performance, eliciting the maturing of his mind as Henry finds the statesmanship and inner mettle needed to inspire his soldiers while keeping his advisers in check. The most wonderful aspect of Henry V are those in which the man weighs-up the conflicted concepts of individual and state, and here Chalamet garners all that psychological complexity in an affecting performance that stands-up well against all those who have come before.

Joel Edgerton adopts a variable northern accent as Falstaff but grounds the character with a more restrained interpretation than often seen. Good and loyal friend to Prince Hal, Falstaff’s considerable war experience and tactical expertise prove decisive, and Edgerton clearly enjoys the the strategic scenes in which his character bests the well-born men around the king. But Falstaff is also Henry’s constant reminder of reality, that war is costly and unpleasant for those who have to fight it and not an enterprise to be treated lightly – one of the film’s major themes. There may be some who dislike this approach to Falstaff, but if Shakespeare can create fictional characters from real people, then his own fictitious creations can also find new life and rescued reputation in a different kind of story.

Robert Pattinson stands out in a skilled supporting cast, providing the film’s relatively few laughs as the ego maniacal Dauphin whose arrogance precipitates his own downfall but not before some entertaining exchanges with Chalamet. Sean Harris is also notable as chief adviser William who quickly becomes a pragmatic guide for the young king whose subtle actions belie the mighty power that William ultimately wields – a presence that becomes increasingly important as events take their course.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and Michôd make us wait as Shakespeare does for Agincourt and The King is primarily a film about preparation, but it well conjures the messy reality of medieval fighting, of masses of grey armored knights with visors obscuring their faces becoming increasingly embroiled in the mud as they fight in unpleasant conditions. There is a small nod here to the rain-soaked battlegrounds of the First World War, a hint about the universal awfulness of combat for those left to fight wars not of their making. This isn’t quite the version of Henry V that we know but Michôd and Edgerton’s film is a fresh and psychologically compelling retelling. Theatre purists might not approve but The King has a life of its own, one that honours Shakespeare’s text while creating something entirely new.

The King is released on Netflix on 1 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.

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Blood Wedding – Young Vic

Blood Wedding - Young Vic

A wedding is seen as the start of something, a new beginning for a couple about to build a life and potentially a family together, yet weddings also signal the continuation not just of social tradition and moral expectations but of a longer dynastic legacy which throughout history has united whole groups of people, tribes, clans and nations by the joining of hands and the recitation of set vows. For marriage is a political act, one that may be dressed-up as an expression of true love today but extends beyond the two people at the alter to forge ties that bind their family histories, legacy and future together. When that goes wrong, all hell breaks loose – “Marriage is not for the weak” insists one of the characters in Marina Carr’s atmospheric adaption of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding at the Young Vic.

Lorca’s plays are revived with some regularity, with several productions of The House of Bernarda Alba in recent years as well as a memorable update of Yerma by Simon Stone that took Billie Piper to award success and an off-Broadway transfer. Completing his rural trilogy, Blood Wedding is seen least often but equals Lorca’s companion works for its ferocious understanding of the stifling nature of remote village life and inter-generational struggles. It bubbles with barely contained violence that erupts with inevitable consequences, the wisdom of the elders unheeded by the headstrong younger characters determined to fight against their fate, however futile.

Most notably, Lorca writes so well for women, understanding the strictures of expectation, duty and domesticity placed on them by external forces with which many of his female characters struggle to conform. Although Yerma longs for children she cannot behave meekly and rails painfully against her lot, while uncontainable passion comes between the Alba sisters and proves the undoing of the bride in Blood Wedding, as her father arranges a match for her with a local family whose land he covets. Lorca’s female characters are then backed into a corner, forced into a state of heightened emotional desperation from which rash acts trigger the dramatic and tragic conclusion of his plays, endings in which women are both the unfortunate victims of societal control but also the powerful arbiter of their own destiny.

It is particularly notable in the Young Vic’s new production, directed by Yaël Farber, that it is a woman’s nature that needs to be contained, with the Groom’s Mother and the Bride’s Grandmother making repeated reference to women being kept at home, their rightful place being a kitchen, purposefully isolated from all society except their husband’s. In Carr’s version, rather than men being untameable beasts, there is a fear that women who don’t conform will upturn the delicate balance of power in this community, where violence is the only possible outcome; restraining their wildness is a way to protect them from the darker fate that befalls women who transgress.

Carr has trimmed the play to a neat 1 hour and 50-minutes, running without an interval, and transposed the action to a hybrid Irish-Spanish location that works extremely well. The three interlocking families are Irish, with those of the betrothed couple set apart as land-owning farm and mountain people, while the hated Felix tribe are frequently described as gypsy, representing a freer lifestyle with a greater connection to nature. Designer Susan Hilferty uses Spanish stylings in the clothing and set-design to retain a Lorca-like visual effect with the Groom’s Mother and Bride’s Grandmother in plain black dresses and headscarves, while the men wear working clothes of the 1930s. And while this feels like a play in which the women drive the action while dressed in doom-laden black, the Groom and Leonardo Felix (the Bride’s former partner) present themselves respectively as lovers and warriors, like Greek heroes battling the Gods.

And this classical notion stretches to Hilferty’s configuration of the Young Vic auditorium, a Roman amphitheater in which the audience sits almost all around the action, waiting for the tragedy to unfold beneath us. The same space simultaneously conjures notions of the Spanish bullring, in which the two male leads will eventually go head-to-head, a gladiatorial battle that takes place on the same ground where many have died before them – it is notable in Carr’s text that the Bride’s Father refers to his wife and her family being buried beneath the stage, while the floor is stained with blood from some previous encounter, the last of which we see being wiped away in the play’s very first scene. The simplicity of Hilferty’s staging exposes the play’s emotional and violent undercurrents which are then amplified by the arena-like shape of the room in which characters stalk around each other until ready to make their move.

Carr has also incorporated the mystical elements of Lorca’s piece with a role for Thalissa Teixeira as the white-suited moon who sets the mood by singing in Spanish and English, her voice a continual warning of the looming danger exuded by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s composition. Likewise, death muses philosophically as a woman at the spindle (Brid Brennan) later in the play, while some woodcutters act as a chorus for the action, although their presentation sits awkwardly, slightly unclear of their purpose in this version. Farber’s mix of realism and slightly heightened fantasy scenes are tonally aligned, supported by Imogen Knight’s intriguing movement choices, including a liberating horse ride performed as a circular swing round the stage at speed – a different kind of solution than those presented in Equus.

Farber controls the unfolding tension very carefully, maintaining momentum in the loaded interchanges between different groups of characters as the deal is done between the central families. And there is an overriding sense of danger throughout Blood Wedding, of how the bitter fallout between the tribes is reawoken by each new generation, looking to past hurts and transgressions to excuse and fuel further attacks. This inability and unwillingness to shake off family legacy is strongly conveyed and underpins the psychological construction of a play in which characters are driven by or fight against this inheritance of blood, and Farber allows the intensity to build, keeping the action taut across a production that seems far shorter than its run time suggest.

The specter of death hangs heavy over these characters – not just in the permanent funeral colour scheme – but also the frequent references to the unpleasant murder of family members at the hands of rival tribes or for failure to conform to local expectation. The deaths of the Groom’s father and brother are mentioned often by his mother, oddly seen by her as a relief, an ending that places them beyond the permanent atmosphere of violence and fear of death which the living must endure. Carr brings real clarity to this aspect of Lorca’s play in her adaptation, creating a wider sense of the warring clans and the devastating relief of death felt by those left behind, adding to an overarching sense of predestination that Farber unfolds well – the real union of the play being the final and inevitable confrontation between the Groom and Leonardo Felix, something the latter acknowledges to the Bride is the rightful consequence of their actions.

Olwen Fouéré as the Groom’s Mother is a forbidding presence with a strong feel for the rights of her family. Obsessed with the death of her husband and eldest son, Mother dotes on the Groom, insisting on his physical perfection and talks about the investment of a parent in physically growing her son. Fouéré dominates much of the action with a clear idea of her family’s superiority in the local area while still fearing the world of men that threatens the stability and harmony of her relationship. Annie Firbank as her equivalent female presence in the Bride’s home gets most of the jokes and a charming scene with the Groom at the wedding in which he physically sweeps her off her feet, but like Mother, she equally insists on maintaining the status quo, protecting the status of the family name and parcelling out wisdom to her granddaughter.

Aoife Duffin’s Bride is a classic Lorca woman, trapped in a situation not of her own making and initially fighting the circumstances that might set her free. The Bride’s motivation is sometimes difficult to follow as her emotional trajectory vacillates between the two men as the action unfolds, but Duffin evokes the struggle between duty and passion pretty well, and while her characterisation borders on sulkiness, bringing out a childishness and lack of maturity in the Bride that makes her a less explicable prize to these two men, her final reckoning is well conveyed.

David Walmsley and Gavin Drea are the Groom and Leonardo Felix respectively, each suggesting their ultimate lack of suitability for the Bride. Walmsley’s Groom has a blind certainty in his right to marry the woman he chooses and never openly objects to his mother’s exuberant boasting, while Drea’s Felix is already a terrible husband to a woman he married in anger, refusing to settle for the life he chose. Their eventual confrontation is full of drama, and although far too short for the build-up it receives, it is a showdown that purposefully links together the mystical and quasi-religious elements of the play that collide fate and inevitability with the brutality of the world in which these men exist, where knives rather than weddings are the real solution to family conflict.

Carr’s coherent vision for Blood Wedding delivers a production that is unforgiving, creating a portentous world in which notions of love and freedom will always be trampled by the stronger inheritance of history, violence and family legacy. The bleak landscape of isolated farmsteads and rocky mountains which Farber and Hilferty create is steeped in death and destruction, an inescapable fate for all involved as well as a relief from the burden of life. A wedding is more than the beginning of a love story, it is a powerful union of families – in this engaging and atmospheric adaptation, it’s certainly not for the weak.

Blood Wedding is at the Young Vic until 2 November with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


William Blake – Tate Britain

 

The Ancient of Days, William Blake

Genius or lunatic, William Blake was clearly a troubled man. You only need to look at his collection of despairing figures, prostrate bodies and muscular beasts painted in vivid reds and mournful blues clutching mercilessly at their prey to know that this was an artist channeling his demons, trying to make sense of the visions he experienced in a tumultuous period of British history. But Blake is so much more than that; poet, printmaker and artistic visionary, Tate Britain charts the evolution of his work in their new exhibition William Blake which places his output in its proper personal, social and political context, revealing a man born into respectability struggling to find an audience for his increasingly challenging work, and only through the patronage of a few key friends is William Blake remembered at all.

Opening to coincide with The Last Night of the Proms in which the rousingly nationalistic anthem Jerusalem is annually performed using Blake’s lyrics, the exhibition is a chronological catalogue of the numerous strands of Blake’s personal and professional life, as well as the many innovative techniques and approaches he applied to his art. There is an additional sense of the man as a commercial printer and engraver simultaneously producing work in a variety of forms and styles throughout his lifetime. We saw in Tate Britain’s equally revealing van Gogh show earlier this year that artists are rarely able to focus on one avenue and must respond to commissions or undertake other forms of work to support their lifestyles. Blake was the same and, as this exhibition strongly argues, it is at this intersection of the imaginative and commercial forces that resided within Blake which caused him so much trouble.

Blake was a devoted Londoner, born in Soho and rarely moving more than a few streets in either direction apart from a few years in Sussex.  He was born into a trading family who encouraged his interest in becoming an artist and supported his apprenticeship as an engraver, a pragmatic approach to fostering an outcome to his creativity that he could sell. The first suite of rooms are dedicated to Blake’s time at the Royal Academy and the classical forms he was encouraged to replicate.  As Constable would find just a few years later, the emphasis was on emulating the past, seeking to mirror the anatomical perfection of renaissance artists as well as copying from sculpture in lieu of life drawing of which Blake was not a fan.

These heavily muscled sketches can be seen again and again in his later work and Blake’s eye for bulging physical form seen through the sheerest of gowns and coverings is visible well into his later, more experimental work. It was also during his Royal Academy training that Blake develop the gesticulating figures with almost unreadable expression that also feature in his more mystical pieces later in the exhibition, including the ink and watercolour figure of ‘Moses Receiving the Law’ created in the 1780s. Referencing earlier artists that Blake admired, this white and grey depiction of the 10 Commandments is striking in its simplicity, managing to simultaneously evoke a sense of peace and biblical formality as Moses’s long beard flows into his loose gown, arms uplifted to the clouds holding the reverential word of God, his face a picture of a solemnity.

Job, his Wife and his Friends: The Complaint of Job, William Blake c.1785Blake’s early work drew on these Old Testament stories presenting in paler form the hint of the fire and brimestone God he would later reveal in the coloured work he produced closer to the turn of the century. But seeing these early pieces side-by-side in the first section, you see  the consistency with which Blake created the idea of a brutal God. ‘Job, his Wife and Friends’ from 1785 is full of fear, the bearded horrified face of Job referencing the stone gargoyles of medieval churches – an image Blake returns to again and again in his work. This early piece is filled with people hunched in pleading supplication, fear or awe of some almighty force, awaiting the terrors about to befall them. The theme recurs in Blake’s three-picture representation of the Joseph story, his brothers come to plead for food, fearfully and sorrowfully gathering at the feet of the sibling they fail to recognise.

Contrast the motif of unhappiness with the lightness of spirit revealed in one of Blake’s most famous early works depicting much-loved characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing [c.1786], which depicts the wistful happiness of a party, and with Shakespeare drawings popular at the time, it suggests Blake made some attempts to create more salable pieces. Yet it’s perhaps not all it seems, note also the decision to include four fairies in a ring, an image that links directly to Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music Of Time dated about 150 years earlier which depicts the seasons and the circularity of human life, permanently linking the fruitfulness of summer with death and decay to come – a theme that troubled Blake increasingly as his own work matured.

The second group of rooms showcases Blake’s work as an engraver from the late 1780s, considering both the skills he developed to sustain a healthy trade and his contribution to developments in the industry, not all of them entirely welcome. Even early in his career as an artist the exhibition makes clear that Blake’s attempts to subvert expectation was a source of considerable frustration, unable to meet the commercial expectations of the market or to find a general acceptance of his work. This darkening of the mood is a key theme in Blake’s development and seemingly the less his work was appreciated and recognised the further his imagination went.

America A Prophecy Plate 10, William BlakeThroughout his career Blake wrote and illustrated his own books but not all of these were published. Prints from these various editions are on display across the exhibition and the curators thoughtfully introduce an interesting meta-discussion about the different experience of viewing these as works of art in glass frames rather than reading them as interlinking sections of a single volume as they were originally intended to be seen. Among his most famous pieces are excerpts from Songs of Innocence and Experience, still a classroom favourite, with elaborate margin decoration that links to the religious medieval manuscripts that Blake emulates, alongside America, a Prophecy. Some of these pages are very small so expect queues as you make your way round these sections but the introduction of colour is striking and Blake uses mauve and blue to create shadow, while a brighter red suggests patches of light as the familiar figure of a man in white robes clings to the rocks, arms as ever outstretched in sacrificial repose.

You see clearly the development of Blake’s more dramatic style in the creation of these works with ‘Los and Orc’ a notable turning point in the 1790s where Blake’s mythical creations and darker visions start to invade and consume his work more completely. ‘Lucifer and the Pope in Hell’ from 1794-6 is a dastardly vision of scary gargoyles and hell’s terrifying power as a reluctant clergymen is led unwillingly to the burning pit by a scaled devil – Blake’s view of the Catholic hierarchy clearly visible! These images from the Book of Designs and the Book of Urizen are filled with terrible visions of fire, pain, decay and peopled by alarming characters whose eyes bulge with fear. It’s then only a short imaginative leap, and a brief stroll into the next room, to understand how these tortured creatures became the more elaborate depictions of devils and dragons in Blake’s extraordinary work commissioned by Thomas Butts.

TThe Number of the Beast is 666, William Blake he third section of the exhibition looks at the influence of patronage on Blake’s freedom to create art of extraordinary power and darkness, and while some of his pieces retain their lighter religious symbolism or evoke the simple country aesthetic of English rural life, it is works such as ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea,’ ‘The Number of the Beast is 666’ and ‘Satan in his Original Glory’ which Blake was creating around the same time which provide the most fascinating insight into the conflicting division within his style and presumably his soul at this time. While ‘The Great Red Dragon’ is notably absent from the show, Blake’s disturbing depiction of the many-headed devil with star-patterned wings standing imposingly like Colossus over the oceanic gargoyles is fascinating. Likewise the ‘Number of the Beast is 666’ is an astoundingly nightmarish creation, that classical muscularity of body distorted and rippled as an imposing figure stands over another equally deformed being. Also in this room a chance to see the frightening and improbably muscled figures in Blake’s illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, which in ‘Route of the Rebel Angels’ are given a near human form as the upside down bodies clutch their heads in agony – it makes for a sharp contrast with the wispy simplicity of Shakespeare’s dancing fairies only a couple of rooms and 20 years before.

From here the show moves to Blake’s most famous larger prints in which he employed another new monotyping technique using ink pressing and watercolour to create the famous image of Newton bent over his mathematical workings – turned into a large-scale statue at the British Library – the exquisite purple-blue shading of the rocks echoing the prints in America, a Prophecy, while nodding to the spread of Enlightenment ideals that would soon banish creationist notions from scientific discourse. Here also is the brutal image of Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all-fours, the flesh of his thighs slowly morphing into the haunches of a beast as that familiarly bearded face that haunts so many Blake pieces stares out in desperation. ‘The House of Death‘ in the same room uses less vivid colours than these other works but shows Blake experimenting with approaches to better convey his subject matter, lines from Milton foreshadowing the painful destruction of mankind with gaunt figures printed largely in ghostly grey and white.

The exhibition concludes with a small recreation of Blake’s disastrous and poorly attended 1809 exhibition at his Soho home which plunged him into depression for many years, angered by the lack of acclaim for his work and the refusal of art’s governing bodies including the Royal Academy to exhibit his work appropriately. And through the curation of this engaging exhibition the viewer has felt the inevitability of this outcome, that the increasingly imaginative and disturbing elements of Blake’s work came to dominate his artistic expression in a world still used to the safety of Gainsborough and the compliant portrait painters Blake so detested. There is a sense as you wander through these rooms of a mind freeing itself of all restraint, and of a fantasy life, like the Red Dragon, imposing itself on Blake’s commercial output as well, leading to a final rupture that left the artist in exile for some years.

But the Tate wants to send you home with hope and the final section which contains the illustrated text of Jerusalem is about rediscovery and the late recognition Blake received thorough partnerships with younger artists discovering his work afresh – and in 1818 it should be noted after the revolutionary fervor of the continent had died down with the final defeat of Napoleon – leading to a reappraisal of the value of Blake’s work beyond the shock and fear it once induced. So genius or lunatic? Well almost certainly both, but as this comprehensive exhibition so clearly argues there was always a duality in Blake’s artistic contribution, balancing the commercial with the personal, the two constantly overlapping as he strove for recognition. Blake was perhaps not a person it would have been easy to know but he is certainly not an artist you can ignore, and while we may never fully know if the visions he claimed to see were a sign of madness, this guided tour through the brilliant recesses of his imagination with all its classical symbolism, medieval symmetry and eventual descent into hellish vistas will haunt you for the rest of the week.

William Blake is at Tate Britain until 2 February. Tickets are £18 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


A Very Expensive Poison – The Old Vic

A Very Expensive Poison - Old Vic

It’s not often a show leaves you unsure what to think, usually you come down on one side of the other, you will know whether you think it was good or bad storytelling, if the methods of the playwright and director do justice to the narrative, and whether you have enjoyed yourself or not. Sometimes, these things are not mutually exclusive, you can enjoy yourself without thinking it was a great play or you can admire the use of theatrical devices while knowing they conceal more fundamental faults. Either way, you usually know how you feel.

But Lucy Prebble’s new play A Very Expensive Poison, which enjoyed a luxurious two-week preview period, may leave you grappling with conflicting emotions, unable to quite locate, interpret or even name the exact response it has provoked. Her tale of the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko is framed as a murder mystery, one that takes the audience back in time to Mother Russia to understand how the Litvinenko family ended up in England – where citizenship had recently been granted – and just who was responsible for ordering and carrying out the death of Alexander. The play quite rightly asks some very big questions not just about the freedom of foreign operatives to undertake political business and state-mandated assassination attempts on British soil and the apparent disdain for sovereignty and international law that this suggests, but also, in our era of fake news and narrative deception, how easy is it to lose sight of the real people the headlines affect.

Starting with the positives and Prebble’s clearly well-researched play has much to say about the ownership of storytelling, and while these themes are not elucidated with the power and purpose that perhaps this subject deserves, there is a desire to understand how alternative perspectives are both created and subsequently adopted as the ultimate ‘truth.’ There is a coming together in Prebble’s work of both the ‘great men of history’ theory and the notion that ‘history is written by the winners’, particularly when the full armory of state propaganda is at hand and recent historiography has attempted to address the notable gaps in our knowledge of a past shaped by the immediate personal, political and nationalistic needs of the present.

The storyteller themselves also cannot escape their own bias, where their view of the world is shaped by where and when they grew up and the socio-cultural, economic and political experience of their lives. The information she provides offers fascinating context to an event that few audience members would know beyond the series of headlines a decade ago and a famous front-page image of the dying man. The way in which Prebble excavates Litvinenko’s earlier life and situates it not only in his prior work in the FSB but his record of inconveniently standing up to the corruption and misuse of power he observed in his colleagues starts to make sense of what was far from a random attack. One of the most interesting aspects of  A Very Expensive Poison is the shifting narrative that Prebble employs to demonstrate how Litvinenko’s story has been purposefully controlled by state actors in the UK and Russia to further and protect existing alliances.

We are show clearly in the second Act that investment in the UK by Russia through property and business connections helped to drive the official response which for a long time denied the Litvinenko family any true justice. How this is fed through the show is managed with interesting technique revealing the layers of FSB administration that distanced senior officials from the crime. One of the show’s highlights is a sinister, knowing performance from Reece Shearsmith playing Putin as a finger-drumming comic-book villain, and it is during one of his speeches that the audience is introduced to the idea that what we are seeing is only one perspective on events, something which he counters with an “official” version just before the interval, insisting we needn’t return for Act Two now he’s revealed the play’s happy ending. Dismayed to see us all again, Shearsmith’s Putin occupies the boxes on the sides of the Old Vic auditorium where, like the Critics from the Muppets, he is able to comment on scenes being played out, arguing against their veracity.

Appropriately, it does encourage the viewer to think about how the presentation of all news and events through the Internet, newspapers and other media are controlled by external forces, how what we see everyday is pre-processed, smoothed and constructed to create a precise impression, spoon-feeding the public only what they need to know. If you take anything away from A Very Expensive Poison then to leave with these two notions of his former career and the context in which Litvinenko’s death occurred, as well this concept of narrative manipulation are the aspects of Prebble’s work that are most successful.

But there is a downside, and by drawing attention to the falsity of these narratives it highlights the play’s own contribution to public storytelling which for all its insistence on this being Marina Litvinenko’s story, to which she  contributed and is the driving force, you become increasingly conscious of the writer’s hand, that this is Prebble’s version of Marina’s version of Litvinenko’s experience of his Russian colleagues in a central knot that the play never quite unravels. It is the presentation of this information and the staging techniques applied to the story that are so troubling and this is the source of the unresolved conflict in your thoughts.

There is a sense of levity across the production that sits uncomfortably with the protracted and very painful death that Alexander Litvinenko suffered for, as Prebble forcefully argues, merely speaking out. There is nothing wrong per se with using entertainment to educate, and the positive audience and critical responses furiously promoted by the theatre on social media suggest that many viewers have loved and been deeply moved by the events of this play. But you are also bombarded with theatrical approaches, an exhausting barrage of styles and ideas designed quite purposefully  – and some may even say manipulatively – to make the subject matter “fun.”

And there is a huge amount going on here, mixing a variety of visual styles to keep you involved. As well as straight-forward dramatic scenes several characters also break the fourth wall,  stepping out of Tom Scutt’s box-shaped set to address the audience, first MyAnna Buring’s Marina, but also Tom Brooke’s Alexander and Shearsmith’s Putin later do the same. As the story unfolds the set gives way, opening-out into the warehouse-like expanse of the Old Vic backstage area emphasising Prebble’s increasingly meta approach concluding with audience members being asked to read excerpts from Litvinenko’s final message into a microphone from their seats.

But director John Crowley and Prebble continue to pull apart the norms of storytelling as actors in giant satirical costumes of Russia’s leading politicians of the late twentieth-century invade the stage as a reference to the Spitting Image-type show that the family had been watching on TV. Later there is an alligator hand-puppet and performers wearing full-sized ballroom dancer models strapped to back and front to create a crowd scene (a bit Generation Game). And there is more visual spectacle to come as the small platform stage moves back and forth to create space for the overarching police investigation that connects the pieces together as well as serving as the three London locations where the poisoning may have happened, the stage for a series of Music Hall acts to accompany Putin’s introduction to Act Two and even a party of disco-dancing Russians – if that sounds simultaneously inventive and exhausting then, well, it is, A Very Expensive Poison doesn’t hold back on the visual assault.

Yet, the audience doesn’t really learn anything new either, this is not a radical re-positioning of public knowledge on the Litvinenko case, but a descriptive history that rarely delves beneath the surface. With the poisoner suspects presented as a blur of cliches, what do generic and stereotyped Russian accents and characters really add to our understanding of why this happened? Wouldn’t Litvinenko be better served by trying to understand a nation where friends and colleagues betray each other at the state’s behest, where personal loyalty means very little and the fear of reprisals, the rise and fall of powerful men and the consequences of betrayal can last for decades. Yes we find out who did it, but we still barely know why.

Buring as Marina is the only significant female character in the play but is given next to nothing to do except plead. There is little sense of Marina as a woman in her own right, who she was outside of the roles of wife, mother and campaigner in which the play confines her. Always an actor who finds many layers, Brooke fares much better as the tragic Alexander drawing out a sense of Litvineko’s pragmatism, a quiet, good natured man looking to do the right thing but with a dogged determination to expose corruption. There’s excellent support from Shearsmith as the sinister and comic uber-villain Putin, as well as Gavin Spokes as the police detective.

Prebble has self-depricatingly referred to the show as “messy” in pre-interviews and it is in several ways; some of the bombast feels superfluous in a story that should be exciting enough on its own. It is fun and silly and engaging but it also trivialises to a degree, and when the play tries to regain lost ground with its serious final passage it loses impact, the seriousness partially undermined by the presentation of this crime as a hoot. Prebble has serious arguments to outlay about the relationship between international governments and narrative misdirection but the broadly comic approach to presentation feels at odds with the meaning of the play. Audiences love it and the critics have largely raved about A Very Expensive Poison but there will be some of us in the middle who just don’t know what to think. Clever and entertaining certainly, but given a man died in horrible circumstances perhaps it’s also a bit glib.

A Very Expensive Poison is at the Old Vic until 5 October with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Hansard – National Theatre

Hansard - National Theatre

Writing a play about the political experience of the last three years may seem an impossible task, not because the events don’t naturally lend themselves to drama but because if you saw it on the stage you would think it all so ludicrously unlikely, every twist and turn so perplexingly farcical that audiences just wouldn’t believe it. But we are living proof that truth is stranger than fiction, and while that may give comfort to future historians unpicking every aspect of our socio-political activities 30 years from now, how do contemporary playwrights begin to anatomize and reflect on one the of the biggest constitutional issues of our lifetime when the story is far from over – the answer is to look to the past.

Like James Graham before him, who used the 1970s setting of This House to draw parallels with the coalition government of 2010-2015, Simon Woods’s smart and affecting new play Hansard returns to 1988, to the height of the Thatcher government as an active member of the Government and his  Labour-supporting wife tear each other to pieces on a Friday morning in the sanctity of their Cotswold’s home. It’s a play about many things, about the fundamental theoretical difference between the approaches to citizenship and care in the two major parties, about the nature of political and personal legacy, about the traps and sore spots created by decades of marriage, and about the fundamental failure of Robin and Diana Hesketh (becoming ciphers for their own parties) to truly act for the causes they so passionately espouse. Woods’s brilliant 90-minute play is a searing assessment of our national dilemma and of who we have become.

But first, as with all two-handers, you will notice how smartly Woods has constructed his play to create waves of activity that manage the changing levels of intensity and tension between the characters, while cumulatively taking the audience deeper into their marriage. Woods writes with a real understanding of genuine conversation, with its loops of meaning and circular arguments. It is crucial to the overall effect of Hansard that at no time do Robin and Diana ever say anything unnatural that make the play feel theatrical or false in its presentation of a particular moment in this relationship. Woods makes you feel like an interloper, listening with a glass to the wall in this private presentation of real pain and there is not a single clunky moment as the conversation turns corners or changes direction.

Instead, Woods rather masterfully controls the simultaneous unfolding of the Hesketh relationship and their life together as well as using their experience to reach the viewer, engrossing us in their Friday morning in order to see ourselves a little better in their reflection. And while Hansard is a deeply political play, its most striking reference is to Edward Albee’s campus drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Imagine George and Martha on a quiet night in  when there are no guests to play to, Robin and Diana are somewhere here. Woods has the same ability to write dialogue that runs through a number of topics, introducing new strands as needed to revolve the action, but like Albee, he is able to loop the entire discussion back to the one or two fundamental issues, recurring motifs that anchor the play. And it is the eventual unveiling of this central secret, the true reason for the bitterness in this very broken marriage that hooks you in.

Hansard is often very funny and you will cry with laughter at the brilliant jabs that Woods lands on old-Etonian Ministers and their perspective on the world, shaking your head in amused recognition at how expertly he skewers the ruling classes on both sides of the House. Yet, what really emerges from Woods’s writing is a compassionate comprehension of the many forms of suffering that two people with such knowledge of one another can casually inflict. Like George and Martha, this is situated in the complex interior life of his characters and the clarity with which he sees them both so, however much you resist, their actions become comprehensible even if they are never exactly likeable.

It begins with a fairly clear distinction between the Left and Right positions on the purpose of government – is it to provide a maternal protection by shielding citizens from difficulties or should it be a paternal facilitation that allows each member of society to face and manage hardship without recourse to outside assistance. Woods uses his characters, initially, as physical forms of this debate, Robin the typical Conservative politician whose patrician principles extend beyond the legislation he helps to enact – in this case Clause 28, voting to prevent homosexuality from being discussed in schools – to his behaviour at home, as well as his entire outlook on life. Woods uses Robin to demonstrate the Thatcherite concept of meritocracy, of learning to stand on your own two feet and grasp opportunities for yourself, that natural talent, hard work and ambition will be justly rewarded.

It is an opinion that for much of the play will provoke your anger, and we learn to dislike the smug Robin for all his self-deprecating wit, and through the well-directed scorn of his wife, we come to understand that this view of the world is one born from privilege, of entitlement bred into him at public school and because no barriers have been placed in Robin’s path to power. It’s not hard to align this impression of Robin as pertaining to the lack of compassion we see in our modern governments. But the story Woods is telling is far more complicated than that, and over the course of the play, told in real time, our perspective on Robin shifts as Diana’s own failings come into focus.

Most of the time, the audience will applaud her, the years of bile erupting into a series of beautifully and heroically delivered snipes that champion the vulnerable and dismiss the overgrown schoolboys she believes work with her husband. But Diana’s own position becomes equally untenable in Woods’s narrative, a suggestion that personal weakness undermines her political passion leading to a crucial discovery that affects her role in the play. Through Diana, we see how the high-minded ideals of the Left and her demand for kindness as a starting point for all policy becomes as naive a strategy for government as Robin’s dismissive approach seems cruel, and while Woods clearly has no time for the glut of self-serving Right-leaning politicians, neither does the play suggest, has the woolly liberalism of the arts and the series of “geography teachers” who headed the Labour Party until 1988, served the nation any better. Here we are then as an audience caught between Diana and Robin, but also as a society of citizens trapped between Left and Right, facing the failure of both doctrines to create the levels of social support needed. This is very smart writing.

Yet, it is also very emotional writing and Woods never lets this political conundrum diffuse the reality of the people he is creating, and through this marriage we are asked to also consider the individual’s deep yearning for legacy. Robin is overly preoccupied, as many modern leaders have seemed to be, with manufacturing his place in history, in ensuring his work, his presence and what little influence he has amassed is remembered. He is comforted by the existence of Hansard – the political diary that records every moment of the House of Commons – which will mark his contribution. But Robin’s legacy, like his marriage and house is rotten. Looks around the edges of Hildegard Bechtler’s excellent set, the ceiling is lightly dusted with mold, the skirtings and corners are decayed with age and there is a hint of damp beneath the beautiful middle-class facade with its extensive garden and fitted AGA. Even the walls are bare of pictures, of anything that denotes that real lives are lived in this house, physically and metaphorically there is nothing inside.

Instead of creating history, Diana and Robin are haunted by it and they have become frozen in this cycle of reproach and recrimination. She uses the origins of their relationship in an affair as evidence that his now cheating again, the fact of his mysterious Wednesdays something he never confirms or denies however often she needles him, while he resents her blatant alcoholism and refusal to behave appropriately on public occasions. For the Heskeths the past is weaponised, their lives like Hansard an exact diary of former hurts and humiliations, their legacy full of destroyed electoral promises played out across damaged personal loyalties and conspicuous clashes. The child they barely mention sits between them which, like George and Martha, takes the game to a level beyond which either wants to play. By the play’s conclusion the Heskeths (and we) are clear on how we all got where we are, even if we have no way to fix it.

Director Simon Godwin knows well how to control the rise and fall within these relationships and his recent Antony and Cleopatra on the Olivier stage was superbly managed. Diana and Robin are similarly matched and played with relish by theatre titans Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings. Godwin fills the long Lyttleton stage with their trauma, positioning his characters as far apart as possible without ever losing the captivating intimacy of their relationship. One moves towards the other, so Godwin has the other depart instantly for the opposite side of the stage, it becomes a routine so embedded in the rhythm of their life together they are barely aware it is happening, and even at the conclusion where all the battles have been played out, they find no physical intimacy in the more hopeful aftermath.

Alex Jennings is superb as the beleaguered Robin, devoted to his Prime Minister and more than willing to vote as instructed if it will further his own career. Robin truly believes the views he espouses, with no hint of self-awareness about how his comfortable life has been created through the inequalities he sustains by his actions. Yet, Jennings very slowly introduces Robin’s humanity and while as a character he claims to have no time for Freud or for the need to bewail his lot, there is an active psychological direction in Jennings’s performance that ultimately leads to a sensitivity that is quite moving in the play’s final moments.

Lindsay Duncan is equally magnificent as Diana, a trickier prospect in some ways, shut off at home and restricted by the opportunities for late middle-aged women in 1988 unable to effect the kind of change she needs for herself and the nation. There is so much to enjoy in Duncan’s delivery of every put-down and jibe, but, like Robin, it becomes clear that Diana is hiding a frailty that Duncan draws out as the morning draws-on, a need to purge her life of the poison that has effected their marriage, one which gives Diana strength as well as fear. Unlike her husband, Diana is filled with a need to expurgate the past, to release the demons that hold them back which drives the drama as the chemistry between Duncan and Jennings ignites.

Woods has written a scintillating new play where the dialogue never stops, there are no moments of silence to pause or reflect, and even when characters momentarily leave the room the other continues to address them. In just 90-minutes this creates a continual flow that is both fascinating and enthralling. Hansard is a great political play, one that tells us everything about the society we have become and why the impasse of the last three years cannot be easily broken. But Woods has also achieved the one thing that seems to elude our polarised nation, in the creation of Diana and Robin and using their fractured marriage as a metaphor for our ailing democratic system he shows us the humanity of both sides, that the possibility of finding common ground may not be as remote as we fear. With incendiary months ahead at Westminster, let’s hope he’s right.

Hansard is at the National Theatre until 25 November with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


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