Category Archives: London

The Art of Theatre Photography

Present Laugher by Manuel Harlan - Uncle Vanya by Johan Persson - Betrayal by Marc Brenner

Theatre photography is one of the most important ways to promote a new production and simultaneously one of the elements audiences – and probably most creatives – actively think least about. While the contributions of actors, directors, designers and more recently the technical crew to creating and embodying the visual concept of a show are increasingly understood and recognised within the industry, the role of the photographer is vastly underestimated. Search for ‘theatre photography’ and the results focus entirely on technical learning and tips but far less on the crucial role of the photographer in capturing the essence of a production. Yet, to the outside world, their images are the entry point into a show, brokering that relationship with potential audiences.

Production and rehearsal room photos are far more than window dressing and along with posters that increasingly use digital photography rather than graphics, they signal to potential theatregoers what this production has to say. They demonstrate how revivals have distinguished their approach from earlier productions and help new shows to compete in a crowded marketplace, where numerous alternatives vye for your attention and your money. A set of well chosen photographs can do far more than the critics and sometimes even the synopsis to entice an audience into the theatre – as a promotional tool, they are invaluable.The very best production shots can distil the work of the wider cast and crew into a series of storytelling images, bringing the show’s aesthetic as well as its tone, style and psychological approach meaningfully into view.

Yet, only a few photographers are able to truly capture the essence of a production, to encapsulate its quality and depth in a single shot and three photographers have dominated the professionalisation and art of stage imagery for some time – Johan Persson, Marc Brenner and Manuel Harlan. Their pictures make the transition into independent objects of art, acting only partly as a visual record of performance and instead largely exist as beautiful images in their own right. These photographers are particularly adept at recording that one defining image, the analysis of which reveals all you need to know about that particular show.

Johan Persson

Persson’s sought after work recently includes Ian Rickson’s productions of Rosmersholm in 2019 and Uncle Vanya (pictured above) at the beginning of 2020, both of which had a painterly set designed by Rae Smith. Persson’s ability to capture the particularly shades of those spaces, the combination of light and shadow in the visuals was particularly striking as forgotten corners of lived-in rooms were briefly illuminated by rays of sunlight from the natural world intruding into a once silent household. He is a photographer that often finds contradiction in an image as the emotional and the physical contend.

One of Persson’s finest images – an arguably one of the truly great theatre pictures – has re-emerged during lockdown thanks to the proliferation of online theatre performances. This image of Tom Hiddleston in the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus was printed on the back of tickets before the venue went paperless last year and was framed on their staircase. Memorable even six years on, this is electrifying photography, full of drama and evoking a particular moment within the show where the bloodied hero, victoriously returned from battle, enjoys a moment alone. Crucially as a single representation of this production it captures everything Director Josie Rourke wanted to say across its 2.5 hour running time.

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (by Johan Persson)

We see the intensity of this second and its fervent masculinity as the figure plastered in the blood of other men enjoys a moment of post-victory elation. But he is rendered human by the contrasting notes of vulnerability in the image, the painful wince caused by water on freshly drawn wounds, the physical cost of societal expectations of manly behaviour playing out across his body as he privately grapples with the mental and material cost of war, a cost he must tend to in this very private scene that sits between the lines of Shakepeare’s play. Watched through, Hiddleston’s characterisation visits every aspect of this character’s public and private face which is so forcibly and stunningly captured here in this single Persson image.

Contrast that with this photograph from the musical Follies, first staged at the National Theatre in 2017 when Persson took this show-defining photograph, one that eschews the big stars to reflect an obsession with the nostalgic and ethereal that were so bewitching in Dominic Cooke’s landmark interpretation. There is a dreamlike quality to the visuals created by Vicki Mortimer on stage that is rendered entirely in this single image, and while Coriolanus is about two realities – the military and the personal – colliding, Follies is entirely focused on unreality, on fantasy, the impressionability of memory and the despair of lives never lived.

Follies by Johan Persson (National Theatre)

Persson’s image has the same photographic quality as his shot  from Coriolanus but the ghostly image of historic chorus girls backlit against the crumbling facade of the music hall’s brickwork and the illuminated Weismann’s Follies sign, itself in disrepair, pinpoints the emotional confusion of Sally, Buddy, Ben and Phyllis as they travel back in time. The lingering regret of Follies, the glamour of youth and the memory of so much possibility lost is at the heart of Sondheim’s musical. Avoiding sentimentality, Persson’s single shot entirely sums-up a production in which these shadow-selves haunted and comforted the women they became, the Follies itself a now crumbling edifice to something now permanently adrift, a time, a life and a dream about to be crushed forever.

Marc Brenner

Brenner’s work has been just as emotive, a favourite at the Almeida, his photographs have captured moments of great intimacy and flair on stage where external political, socio-economic and military structures buffet the characters as forcibly as their inner lives. Brenner has developed a particularly fruitful relationship with Jamie Lloyd, recording all of his productions from the seedy excesses of 2016’s Faustus to the visual simplicity of the remarkable Pinter at the Pinter season, the emotional cavern of Betrayal (pictured above) and, most recently, the brooding linguistic energy of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Last summer, Brenner took this image at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre during Lloyd’s superb revival of Evita whose transfer to the Barbican this summer has been sadly postponed. Brenner’s long experience of Lloyd’s work instantly reveals all you need to know about this production. Gone are the elaborate 1980s costumes, the coiffured hairdos and elaborate sets and in their place is Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour’s fresh and unencumbered vision told in the Argentinian colours of white and blue, using the original purity of the lyrics and the music to tell the story of Eva Peron while bringing a new visual language to the experience of musical theatre.

Evita by Marc Brenner (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

In his blog, Brenner writes about the challenge of staging the images of this production, working with the parallel shapes created by Gilmour’s steps and responding to the changes to sunset times that daily affected lighting design across the entire run. As art, this image incorporates that technical knowledge, snapping the moment the light falls on the central female figure, framing her against the even rake of the staging and the almost symmetrically-posed dancers. But the depth in Brenner’s photograph encapsulates and reflects the layers of meaning in the story. Here is the simply dressed but nonetheless charismatic Eva Peron who uses her humble origins to climb the ladder of fame, building relationship with the working classes to sustain her position. The smoke effects speak to the frequency of protest and violence in the musical, as well as the almost goddess-like status that Evita achieved which bookends the show.

Evita’s relationship to Colonel Peron may be a political powerplay, but one of Brenner’s most beautiful creations is this image for Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke at the Almeida (where it was also printed on the back of tickets) which transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre. The performance reawakened interest in lesser-performed Tennessee Williams plays and became a captivating example of two people just missing one another. Famed for its rare stripped back approach, using musical tones to set the emotional beat and pace of the story, Brenner’s gorgeous picture, like Persson’s shot from Coriolanus, is one of the great examples of theatre photography as art in its own right, expressing the hopeless romanticism of the relationship between John and Alma through this one image.

Summer and Smoke by Marc Brenner (Almeida Theatre)

The soft pink/orange glow of the lighting sets a mood for this picture evoking the warm evening heat of the South that is so essential to tone and atmosphere in Williams’s most lyrical work. This highly romanticised scene as depicted by Brenner is a momentary fantasy between them but one tinged with regretful longing. John’s (Matthew Needham) direct gaze reflects his open personality while Alma’s (Patsy Ferran) slighty bowed head and closed eyes speak volumes about her process of internalisation in which this moment of physical intimacy warms and scares her – both hope for so much in this second but already understand it cannot end happily. It is an eloquent and dramatically layered shot, instantly transporting the viewer back to one of the most arresting productions of recent years.

Manuel Harlan

Understanding the same degrees of light and shade in an image, Manuel Harlan’s work, favoured by The Old Vic and the RSC, is incredibly evocative, often recording key moments of change or the thematic subtext of a play that helps the audience to understand the genesis of the production. This image from David Leveaux’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was not used in press releases or reviews, and was perhaps considered too oblique as a marketing tool showing neither of the production’s leads, Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. Yet, it is an extraordinarily atmospheric summary of a play that recasts two originally shadowy figures from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and gives them their comic due. What happens in this photography is particularly fascinating, recording in one sense the purposeful artificiality of Anna Fleischel’s staging choices – the roll of marbled paper that covers ceiling, walls and floor, the errant stepladder and the strategically positioned lighting – to create a studio feel, while at the same time offering a hint of these two characters overwhelmed by the vast emptiness of the world they inhabit and, the small part they play in Shakespeare’s construction of it.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Manuel Harlan (Old Vic)

As a piece of art, the illumination of the two protagonists captured in silhouette behind a gauzy curtain speaks to the notions of concealment and spying that are vital to both plays as well as their tangential role in the events at Elsinore. At the same time the hints of colour, a dash of orange on the rear wall and at the top of the curtain add a liveliness to what would almost be a solely black and white depiction of this world. It is a striking piece of photography, one that implies a purgatorial state in which Stoppard and Shakespeare have trapped their characters, not quite real but not entirely fictionalised either.

All too real was the dynamic verve of The Bridge’s immersive production of Julius Caesar staged in 2018 at the still relatively young playhouse by Nicholas Hytner, allowing members of the audience to act as the whipped-up mob crucial to the action in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. The immediacy of the production is reflected in this turning-point moment, photographed by Harlan, immediately following the death of Caesar in which the Conspirators begin to recognise the unforeseen dangers they have unleashed

Julius Caesar by Manuel Harlan (Bridge Theatre)

Harlan, like Persson with his shot of Coriolanus and Brenner in his image from Evita, has entirely caught a defining political and human moment in this picture which implicitly reveals the rest of the play. The artistic framing and use of perspective in this shot are vital, the Conspirators are foregrounded with their hands bathed in blood and purpose achieved, while the ruined corps of Caesar is raised above them, his gaping wounds soon to be referenced in Mark Antony’s famous speech both centralised and slightly out of focus. Yet, the confusion of Brutus, Cassius et al foretells the misdirection to come as they fail to sell their deed to the onlooking crowd, a fatal flaw in their plot which will cost them their lives. Harlan has entirely caught the energy of this room and the exact moment at which the game changes.

Selling prints may not be something theatres want to consider – although in the newly straightened times created by months of enforced lockdown it may generate some much needed revenue – but theatre photography is far more than a series of marketing images. The very best exponents of this art form, Persson, Brenner and Harlan, are able to locate and develop a shot that summarises the narrative and thematic substance of a show, incorporating the director, designer and actors’ vision. But they also move to a realm beyond the physical representation of theatre, these extraordinary images are objects of art, testament to the skill of photographers able to read, interpret and capture these defining moments.

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Coriolanus and the Hero-Warrior – National Theatre at Home

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (by Johan Persson)

Coriolanus is a strangely neglected and infrequently performed play, one without the speechifying and introspection that offer psychological insight into Shakespeare’s most popular protagonists. Yet, with its focus on the delusion of leadership, the importance of the mob and the brittle basis of populism, Coriolanus is truly a play for our times. A recent production starring Tom Bateman at the Sheffield Playhouse was truncated by the pandemic, so this is the perfect time to revisit the Donmar Warehouse’s extraordinary 2014 production showing this week via National Theatre at Home and starring Tom Hiddleston.

Six years on, this remains one of the most viscerally impressive productions of the last decade, a fascinating dissection of power, class and the enduring battle between military conquest and political protectionism that characterise Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Wars and conflicts occur across Shakespeare’s plays and, within the Histories especially, this involves many characters whose motivations and purpose in the story vary considerably as families, regions and nations contend for tangible forms of power.

In these plays, Shakespeare is particularly interested in the formation and decline of the warrior as an archetype, charting the dehumanisation process that rids the individual of personal weaknesses and emotion, transforming them into great and celebrated military leaders. The Henriad trilogy is the best example of this, following the reformation of Prince Hal from tavern-dwelling layabout to the principled and invincible monarch-conqueror. There are plenty of moments of hesitation, uncertainty and fragility along the way, but the steel that Henry V displays on the battlefield and in the rejection of his former companions denote the completion of his metamorphoses from fallible human prince to an idealised personification of glorious war.

Equally interesting is the post-war process in which the feted Hero-Warrior, unable to sustain their god-like form, must return to society – something Henry V escapes by dying unceremoniously in Shakespeare’s afterword. Now irreversibly changed or damaged by combat, the Hero-Warrior sets in motion a train of events that lead disastrously to their own destruction. Caius Martius who earns the moniker Coriolanus from his bloodthirsty endeavours takes this path through the play, the self-destruction of a hero unwilling to accept the confines of a society that built him and this becomes the major driver of Josie Rourke’s outstanding production.

Characteristics of the Hero-Warrior

Heroism is an intangible characteristic in many ways, requiring personality traits including decency, fairness, courage and bravery as well as deeds to demonstrate the hero’s prowess. There are several characters who begin one of Shakespeare’s plays already in the position of celebrated military hero – Coriolanus, Macbeth and Antony – all of whom return from garlanded battle with honours and political recognition, the discussion of which dominates the early section of these plays. Yet the very characteristic that made them also becomes their fatal flaw and pursuing it in peacetime takes them on a path to inevitable destruction and death.

In the Donmar’s Coriolanus, the audience is given a vivid picture of the protagonist’s battlefield strengths in an opening section where he descries the cowardice of his compatriots hiding in trenches rather than running into battle. He goes on to take the city of Corioli singlehanded, returning drenched in blood that runs into his eyes, covering his face and upper body entirely – a beautifully staged moment from Rourke and designer Lucy Osborne. Instantly we know that this is a man apart from others, one with superior fighting skills, incredible audacity and, crucially, an excess of bloodlust that make him part hero part madman.

What unfolds in the rest of the play suggests how fatally flawed this Hero-Warrior is, bred for the simplicity of soldiering, the life and death fundamentality of it all, and entirely unfitted for the grey, oleaginous world of politics. In Hiddleston’s remarkable performance, we see the effect of hubris and how clearly the very thing that made Coriolanus also breaks him – the love of his mother Volumnia. The intensity of their relationship, visible on his return to Rome is given physical form in the tenderness of the greeting between Hiddleston and Deborah Findlay, exceeding that for his wife and son. His reliance on her guidance is vital to understanding the path Coriolanus takes, his unyielding refusal to be other than what she made him even when the great prize of political office and power are offered. By the same extension, when he does finally succumb to her entreaties in the penultimate scene of this production and shows mercy to his former home, he places his mother above himself – it proves his undoing.

Shakespeare’s other Hero-Warriors experience a similar trajectory and while their motivation and downfall is conceived differently, both Macbeth and Antony suffer a rapid fall from grace, tumbling from invincible military hero supporting the dynastic sustenance of the state to its most pressing enemy. Macbeth’s ambitious belief in fate  becomes his fatal flaw which in the early part of the play summons his courage to take the Kingship he craves, while that self-same fate becomes a poisoned chalice as he tries to outmanoeuvre the destiny earmarked for him at the start of the play.

Antony, likewise, is in a solid position at the start of Antony and Cleopatra holding a third of the Roman Empire in his grasp while living with the woman he adores. Antony’s fatal flaw – lust – helps to build his powerbase before the play begins uniting two countries in mutual support, but as his strategic abilities are increasingly clouded by his attachment to Egypt, he foreshadows the series of military disasters that lead to his his military capitulation and death. All of these men experience the decline of the Hero-Warrior image during the course of the play, a status and easiness of mind held at the start which they will never know again.

The Military-Political Clash

One of the core themes of Coriolanus is the uneasy alliance between military action and the democratic process, an idea that recurs in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. States are reliant on the bravado of commanders to conquer territories and occupy land, but attempts to translate battlefield honours into consolidated political roles in peacetime society often in the role of Consul or Tribune, are treated with suspicion by the career politicians that pack the Senate. Julius Caesar is the best example of this as the predominantly civilian conspirators plot to destroy their overmighty colleague, the unspoken threat of the violence his legions could unleash on the city a driving force in his assassination and the recruitment of veteran Brutus to their cause.

In Coriolanus the sniping role of Tribunes Sicinia and Brutus played by Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levy starkly exemplifies that division, adding a class angle between the rulers and the ruled as they both represent and manipulate the voice of the people, using political tactics to dispense with the military man they personal despise. The status of Hero-Warrior counts for remarkably little in the political arena, and Coriolanus struggles to accept the legitimacy of a government that requires the frequent sacrifice of his blood to protect it but not his person. And while the Hydra-like work of the Tribunes (a reference Shakespeare returns to throughout the play) makes them and their reasoning entirely unsympathetic, Coriolanus’s own disdain for democratic process and the people become equally problematic for him.

Dismissive of the facile rituals of political conduct, Hiddleston’s sneering warrior mocks the ceremony of installation into the Consular office, pulling at the robe and laurel crown and refusing to parade his war wounds in order to beg for ‘voices’. Encouraged by his mother to comply with conventions, Hiddleston shows the frustration of the solider forced to debase himself as he courts a popularity he believes should be his by right and contends with his own straightforward honesty (brutal though it is). The result is a bristling tension in this production as Coriolanus struggles to flatter the citizens he can barely hide his contempt for as the audience anticipates confrontation. Within the play there is a fundamental clash between the two mutually dependent arms of the state that find each other’s rituals and personnel distasteful, a conflict, Shakespeare suggests in the plays set later that is never entirely resolved.

A Hard-Edged Vulnerability

The early scenes of the play are full of machismo as battles are fought and the posturing of victory informs the audience’s image of Coriolanus as an unyielding and statuesque figure. Hiddleston’s entrance sets the tone entirely as he captures both the commanding figure and personal charisma of a solider whose exploits are widely admired.  It is a very physical performance, his posture set in rigid military bearing with shoulders back and head held high even when lurking at the back of the stage when’s he out of the scene, creating a fearsome impression, using his posture and surety of step to dominate the stage. There is real danger in Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, a no man’s land between rational, strategic thinking and a psychotic madness that erupts into violence as he fights the Volscian’s led by Hadley Fraser. The menace and physical strength Hiddleston exudes ideally situates the fears of the political class as his return to Rome provokes suspicion and jeopardy for the city.

And while it would be easy to play him as a blustering bully or maniac, what made Hiddleston’s performance so memorable is the thread of vulnerability that runs throughout his characterisation, generating a degree of compassion for the ill-fated general. It is an interpretation that gets between the lines of Shakespeare’s text and colours-in some of the emotional and psychological substance absent from a play with no great speeches or underlying lyricism – at least Macbeth and Antony had soliloquies in which they could unpack their minds to the viewer and themselves.

Hiddleston is a very subtle actor on stage, eschewing expansive expressions or gestures in favour of almost imperceptible flickers of feeling that provide a far richer and deeper experience, particularly well suited to the supposed impassivity of Coriolanus. The emotion exudes from within the character, registering largely in the actor’s eyes as they convey the effect of betrayal to the audience. We see a light die in him as the hurts and taunts dispel any ideas he may have had of his homecoming, while the painful process of dressing-up to beg for votes is clearly an embarrassing affront to the Hero-Warrior ego.

But it is the penultimate scene where these vulnerabilities are so movingly represented, broken down by his mother’s appeal for mercy, Hiddleston brings great clarity to the struggle within Coriolanus between the right tactical response to ensure his victory over Rome as well as ensuring the faith of his new-found comrades, and surrendering the advantage to guarantee the life of his own family. Coriolanus must choose between the two sides of himself, Caius Martius and Coriolanus, the soldier and the politician, knowing the latter ensures his own death, a dilemma that is full of agony in this meaningful performance.

The Donmar’s production of Coriolanus is one of the great NT Live recordings, capturing the intimacy of the space and the intensity of the production. The play may lack the grand tragedy of Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra but this production makes a fine case for its value as a study of the declining Hero-Warrior and its relevance to our current political climate. The impasse between deluded politicians shoring up their own span of power and those who lack the temperament for government but can accomplish great deeds is the essence of Coriolanus – Shakespeare shows us it was ever thus.

Coriolanus is freely available on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel until 12 June. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


This House and the Parliamentary Play

Parliamentary Plays - This House, Labour of Love, Hansard, I'm Not Running

When it was first performed in 2012 James Graham’s This House was an affectionate satire, using its 1970s setting to examine the still young Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government formed in 2010. The shoring-up of minority governments opens all kinds of dramatic possibilities as the ruling parties use every trick in the book to ensure their legislative agenda survives while the Opposition, with the scent of blood in their nostrils, knows their hour is soon to come. Setting This House in 1974-1979, Graham situated his very contemporary play in the last UK coalition when the dying embers of the Labour government offered ample comedic examples of beleaguered MPs, frustrated Whips and savage backbiting to dramatise. It was, however, clearly a play that is optimistic about the Parliamentary process suggesting, for all its faults, it is among the strongest and most respected democratic systems in the world.

Eight years on, it is hard to think so as a weak Conservative government struggled to manage Brexit negotiations and the House as its own members turned against the Prime Minister. The last election may have delivered a stronger mandate but the democratic process has been actively besieged in the last 12 months as Parliament and judiciary fought to prevent the PM from proroguing his own Parliament and ignite his own form of Personal Rule (that worked out so well for Charles I!), while the muddles and deceptions of lockdown have only emphasised the untold influence of shady advisors – the modern day equivalent of evil counselors – who seek to bypass due process in the increasingly hollow-sounding name of “the people”.

Undoubtedly still a wonderful play, this National Theatre at Home streaming of This House arrives at a peculiar moment in our history, one that has altered the context around the play and its general political optimism. Recent years have shown us that truth is most certainly stranger than fiction, and that perhaps all hope of eventual rebalance may be gone. So where does this leave the Parliamentary play? In the last ten years, aside from Laura Wade’s Posh about the making of the men who’ve led us during that time and satirical Fringe pieces about Brexit or big personalities like Boris Johnson, there have been only four significant plays about the nature of government, political parties and the operational democratic process – This House and Labour of Love both by Graham, David Hare’s I’m Not Running and Simon Woods’s Hansard.

The success of these plays has been variable and with three-quarters of them produced by the National Theatre, there has been a collective nod to the failure of our two party system to adequately reflect the views and needs of the nation. Parliament, it seems from these plays, is ruled by personality, faction and self-interested powerplay intended to disguise the weakness of leadership or pave the way for a fresher-looking successor. By contrast, the kind of politics the nation cares about is issue driven – investment in education or the NHS, declining technological output and the more divisive issues of immigration and European unity. These stories tell us that the gap between those who lead and the electorate feels wider than ever while providing little hope, as things stand, of coming together.

The Failure to Govern

Nowhere has this been more clearly elucidated than in 2019’s Hansard, a fascinating two-hander between a Conservative government minister and his frustrated left-leaning wife whose Albee-esque marriage seems to reflect the division at the heart of British politics and its failure to serve the nation. The 90-minute conversation between Robin (Alex Jennings) and Diana (Lindsay Duncan) swirls continually around the fundamental purpose of government; whether to create a structure in which people can and should help themselves or to develop a more interventionist programme that insists on social support for the most vulnerable. Set in 1988 at the time of the Section 28 vote, Hansard ably dramatises the gap between government and governing in which the need to stay in power by obeying the party line overrides and is often the key reason to exercise power – an instance we see repeatedly in This House as Labour’s weakened Whips office focuses entirely on “the business of deals” to maintain their regime.

Labour of Love says much the same as Graham unpicks the central versus local party struggle across a number of years in a single constituency. Parachuting-in rising star David Lyons (Martin Freeman) to cut his teeth in a safe Labour seat becomes the conduit for excavating the  particular divisions within the Labour Party since Tony Blair’s sweeping election victory in 1997 and the increasing struggle to contain the traditional, leftist Trade Union elements of the grassroots party and reconcile it with the centrist – and ultimately more electable – promotional politics of the Blair era. But what this play really does is to expose the increasing distance between the metropolitan and arguably globally-focused centre of politics in London and the needs of constituency members across the country – a division made painfully obvious in the 2016 Brexit vote and ongoing fallout.

As with Hansard, there is an irreconcilable problem in which high-level government policy becomes so removed from the realities of society to be almost meaningless to the vast majority of people, while communities cry out for specific local services under threat from high-level policy. One thing that made Lynn Nottage’s Sweat so resonant was exactly that understanding of the huge distance between national political agendas and their consequences for everyday lives.

David Hare’s 2019 play I’m Not Running received mixed reviews as a dramatic exercise, but it also focused on the Labour Party over a number of years, considering the rise and subsequent failure of leadership in scenes of deal-making and double-crossing redolent of This House.  The introduction of a central romantic relationship between Sian Brooke’s Pauline Gibson and Alex Hassell’s Jack Gould takes some of the same pathways as Hansard in using a personal connection to examine a political divide. Hare’s play splits along two lines, looking at the selection of the party leader and the internal rivalries that so often detract from the business of governing, as well as the overall failure within the Labour Party in particular to reconcile its ideological and procedural arms as its management rolls between issue-based and career politicians.

The Cult of Legacy

Power is intoxicating and given a taste of it, few administrations will easily relinquish their position. One key driver of this is the obsession with legacy, of leaving behind a series of society-changing measures or leading the country through a period of crisis. Sadly for the governed, Prime Ministers who set out to assure their place in history rarely do for the right reasons, and often make the worst leaders. We see some discussion of this in Hansard as MP Robin uses the political record as his primary guide to decision-making, concerned how his voting record will look to history as well as how it could damage his chances of advancement within the party.

This House worries about this too as the ailing Labour government limps on, the Whips in this case determined to pass legislation that will keep their administration afloat for the full term. Rather than setting course for a positive place in history based on its reforming programme, its only goal becomes not going down in history as a government ousted by a vote of no confidence. Staying in power and preventing the opposing Conservative team from leading the House becomes the primary motivation, hoping that history will turn a blind eye to the shoddy tactics and increasingly desperate scrabbling for votes that characterised this Parliamentary session.

Even in Labour of Love, David must choose between blandly supporting the central party and its personable leader at all costs, or giving-up any thought of his own progress and promotion in order to make a stand for his community. With a focus on the debate between electability and principle that divide the Labour Party, the question of political and individual legacy is examined through this play’s time-travelling structure. Told in reverse chronological order from 2017 to 1990 and then back again, Graham’s drama looks at the consequences of legacy decisions over time, with MP David pre-determining his own contribution to political life by mapping out a rise through the ranks that will take him from safe seat to Minister, knowing all the while – like the characters of This House – that his rosy future depends on toeing the line and keeping his party in power at all costs. The consequences David learns are felt in local politics where the needs of the constituency are sacrificed to the futile attempts to second guess what history will make of the party’s time in power.

This House in 2020

Eight years on the sands have certainly shifted which casts This House in something of a different light. It remains a brilliantly constructed, whip smart and hilarious theatrical experience, one of the great plays of the last 10 years that pulls you into its story, never shying away from the complexity of the political situation and its consequences for democracy, yet still creating empathy and understanding for people on all sides however wittily portrayed. But, it reminds us of something we seem to have lost, where once our elected officials appeared to work within the established system, inventively stretching it to the limits but still respecting the boundaries, very recent political manoeuvering has seemed intent on bypassing the system entirely. Whatever side of the political divide you sit on – left or right, Conservative or Labour, Brexit or Remain or somewhere in between – an enduring faith in our democratic system and most importantly the institution of Parliament has been fundamentally wounded by the events of the last four years. Watching This House again thus became an almost nostalgic experience, one that makes us mourn slightly for a time when everyone respected the rules and agreed to play by them.

Graham’s work has always been so good at taking the temperature of our times, examining the centres of power within society and asking big questions about how and why our structures operate as they do, as well as the consequences for the individuals they effect whether the focus is the nature of justice and trial by media in Quiz or the wave of populist energy that quickly spun out of control created by the liberation of the newspaper industry in Ink. This House is essentially an optimistic play, about the ability of Parliament to right itself eventually. Any fundamental and permanent damage to our democracy inflicted by the last four years remains to be seen, but if a rumoured follow-up to This House is in the works, we can be sure Graham will be there to make sense of it for us.

This House is freely available on the National Theatre at Home channel until 4 June. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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

Summer and Smoke Streetcar and Glass Menagerie

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

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

Rediscovering the Emotional Power of ‘Lesser’ Works

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

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

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

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

Staging Simplicity 

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

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

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

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

A New Context – The Future of Characterisation

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

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

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

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


Midnight Your Time and the Cinefication of Theatre

Midnight Your Time - Donmar Warehouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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