Category Archives: Play

Brokeback Mountain – Soho Place

Brokeback Mountain - Soho Place

When the film Brokeback Mountain first appeared almost 20 years ago in 2005 it seemed like a revolution, two mainstream Hollywood names appearing in a film about a tender same sex love story between cowboys in the 1960s. Two decades on and that has all changed for the better. But the stage has always been way ahead of cinema in the presentation and acceptance of love in all its forms, and in a market spilling over with screen to stage transfers of largely 1980s and 90s films turned into big budget theatre musicals, it is a joy to see the intimacy and sensitivity of Ashley Robinson’s world premiere production of Brokeback Mountain at Soho Place which also marks the West End debuts of Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges. Alive with the tragedy of a love that can never be, Jonathan Butterell’s production will slowly break your heart.

“If you can’t fix it, you gotta take” is the sentiment that follows lovers Ennis and Jack through the wild passion of their early love affair and onto a more complicated existence as their lives away from each other over twenty years conspire to take them far beyond the simple solitude and contentment they found one summer on Brokeback Mountain. And while this production gives a clear sense that these men cannot be together openly – the restrictions of the era and the life-threatening beatings that gay men in this story are reported to suffer – the power in Robinson’s adaptation lies in minimising the external noise and focusing on the inability of Ennis and Jack to understand their feelings for one another and overcome an innate fear of what it might mean to be together, a chance for happiness they all but sacrifice as a result.

The audience knows from the start that there is a tragedy in this love story, told from the perspective of the older Ennis (Paul Hickey) who wakes alone, disheveled and reaching for a bottle, remembering the days of his youth. Robinson makes this an unspoken recognition, a character who stalks the stage but never narrates, lingering meaningfully on the edges of his own memories but only acknowleding who he is with a look at his younger self as the play begins. Its subtle but neatly done, and one of Robinson’s strongest gifts here is to recognise the moments when words are not enough, the playwright getting out of the way of the actors and giving them the silences to fill instead. In a text that is already quite spare, offering only the bare essentials, building that cumulative emotional impact in Brokeback Mountain requires a fine balance between different kinds of creative input and this company has found it.

The promotional text makes it clear this is based on Annie Proulx’s short story and not the film, but there is an unavoidably cinematic quality to this stage adaption. Running at only 90-minutes (45-minutes shorter than the movie) it is unusual for theatre to be structured around a series of short scenes that are more common on screen where the camera framing and use of close-ups can elicit a great deal from a few seconds of film. On stage that is harder to achieve particular for a story that spans so many years in the character’s lives, so Brokeback Mountain must build momentum and investment, toning down the existence of other characters to focus more exclusively on Ennis and Jack’s trajectory both together and apart, as well as savouring the longer term impact of their relationship in place of the instant gratification that film can offer at every encounter.

As a result, there are no lingering looks when the pair first meet and head up the mountain to tend sheep for a few weeks, instead there is a slightly frosty restraint emanating from Ennis in which the men barely exchange a word as they pass each other at their camp. Their first night together seems to happen from nowhere, as much a surprise to them as the audience, but it unleashes a torrent of repressed emotion that they give free reign to. Cinema would likely play a scenario like this quite differently, a shy start and a slow build up to a tentative romance, the consummation of that connection the end goal. But theatre can shift the emphasis onto the longer impacts and implication of this relationship, altering the perspective from the close-up to the long view to find its meaning.

Robinson and Butterell have managed that extremely well across this new production, making the emergence and sustenance of this feeling between Ennis and Jack the spine of the show, the depth of the emotion between them and the way in which it builds even as years pass and lots of activities and experiences occur around them is unfaltering. The writer and director are never distracted from the perspective of older Ennis looking back on the loneliness and emptiness of his life without Jack. This past conjured up for the audience essentially has a single track that is designed to inform the present, away from the tricks of cinema, the full impact of which in this theatre production can only be truly understood and felt at the end of the story.

The cinematic nature of this production is only enhanced by the addition of Dan Gillespie Sells’s music, played live and helping to set the mood and track the emotional pulse of the production. Performed by Eddi Reader playing the Balladeer along with her country and western band, these emotive original songs provide a ranging soundtrack with a depth and potency that integrates perfectly with the story, explaining and enhancing the emotional turbulence experienced by the characters. The music is a constant presence but it also feels deftly applied, providing support at just the right moments, a shorthand to enhance the tacit meaning beneath Robinson’s sparring dialogue and the retrained performances.

Staged on a simple but evocative set designed by Tom Pye, there is never any doubt that the action takes place in semi-rural America of small towns and bleak, isolated but potentially freeing landscapes. All of this is cleverly implied by Pye who stages in-the-round on a raised central platform into which bits of furniture can sink or emerge depending on whether the location is a domestic space or the empty landscape, providing a neat and smooth solution to a piece that often needs to move quickly between locations. This is surrounded by gravelly landscape where the Brokeback Mountain camp and other outdoor locations can be partially staged, more than enough to evoke the outdoors feel when needed, but suggesting the pressure of the landscape and the limited freedoms for its inhabitants even in town.

On a small stage Director Butterell eschews any elaborate staging but keeps the focus on the intimacy that grows between the two men using the scale of the auditorium to infer perspective as the landscape dwarfs them. At the same time, Butterell manages to fill this space with their story and the emotional connection between them that simultaneously shows the insignificance of two people but also their importance. Using all four entrance ways at the stalls level brings the story into the audience while the raised platform stage creates at least one more inventive way for characters to appear as if from nowhere that, as a directorial choice, maintains the theatrical spell.

While it is inevitable that some comparisons will be made with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s originating film performances when critics review the show later this week, Lucas Hedges and Mike Faist have made their show and these roles entirely their own. With previous stage experience in the US, this is an early opportunity to see two young stars on the rise and both are compelling, giving a sense of the quite different forces that bring them together as well as the sweep of decades as their characters mature from not very idealistic 20-somethings to men with responsibilities and financial pressures in their late 30s.

Hedges’s Ennis is the more brooding of the pair, a quiet, reserved man who says very little and barely acknowledges his emotions at all, and Ennis is actively trying to perform a particular archetype of cowboy masculinity that makes his feelings for Jack so difficult to manage. There is a gruff edge to Hedges’s approach that is forbidding at first, refusing to engage, which means he is taken by surprise on Brokeback Mountain. Over time Hedges’s charts Ennis’s struggle with maintaining a surface respectability and the deep, unavoidable feeling he harbours for Jack even years later and the constant conflict within the character, an inability to see himself clearly and to risk having the life he wants that ultimately becomes both tragic and moving.

Faist’s Jack by contrast is a live wire, bouncing around the stage with an early energy that suggests a comfort with himself and all the things he is that make him a complete contrast with Ennis’s repression. Jack is more responsive to his physical needs and although fearful of the dangers of living openly as a gay man, feels no shame or confusion within himself. Faist’s performance suggesting this is society’s problem and not Jack’s. Over time, Faist reveals the depth of the love that Jack feels for Ennis, an addiction of sorts but also a certainty that his lover denies him, with Jack more willing to make the leap to something substantial, making the life they could have had a bittersweet regret. And “If you can’t fix it, you gotta take it” becomes his pragmatic mantra.

While the boundaries between film and theatre are increasingly blurred, they are different experiences and require different techniques to convey their story. Film can use close-up and cutting techniques to create emotional investment in an instant while theatre must play the long-game and here this premiere production of Brokeback Mountain does that with considerable care, constructing an emotional connection with the audience that yields results as the show unfolds. Love on stage and screen certainly looks quite different now than it did twenty years ago but there is still a quiet power in the story of two men who couldn’t fix it and just had to endure.

Brokeback Mountain is at Soho Place until 12 August with tickets from £29.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

4000 Miles – Chichester Festival Theatre

4000 Miles - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

One of the major theatre casualties of the pandemic, Matthew Warchus’s revival of Amy Herzog’s 2011 play 4000 Miles was scheduled for April 2020 at the Old Vic. Tickets had sold in droves for the promised pairing of Dame Eileen Atkins and the hugely anticipated UK stage debut of Timothée Chalamet. But alas it was not to be, the Old Vic held on for more than two years hoping the production would form part of its reopening season but the huge success of Dune has taken Chalamet off to film part two and the theatre finally admitted defeat, refunding ticketholders and cancelling the performance entirely. But that isn’t quite the end of the story and Chichester Festival Theatre has given the show a new home as part of its Festival 2023 season with Richard Eyre now directing and Atkins attached. What this revival of 4000 Miles has lost in Hollywood glamour, it more than makes up for in the intimate immediacy of this new version staged in the Minerva space which is considerably smaller than the Old Vic. So what exactly is London missing out on?

Herzog’s play, first performed off-Broadway, is a lean piece and like a lot of modern US drama is rather spare in its construction, running at a tidy 95-minutes without interval. There is a muscularity in Herzog’s writing that takes some adjustment, based on an ordinary conversation style and the things that people say to each other in passing, rather than the more stagey revelations and reckonings that ordinarily shape family drama. This can make it hard for an audience to feel gripped by a story that slowly evolves rather than being more obviously directive. Instead, 4000 Miles has particularity, each word chosen with purpose even when it appears to be inconsequential, and truths emerge through lots of different conversations, each revealing a little more about why Leo has suddenly appeared at his grandmother’s door in the middle of the night having cycled thousands of miles from home.

This is a snapshot in time, several weeks in which the pair live together, and Herzog makes it clear that there are detailed and complex aspect to both of their lives before the action begins which continue beyond the end of the play. Although both have been heard, nothing is neatly resolved, the characters must go on living with what they have done and in circumstances that have not been materially altered by the events of this period. Once the audience accepts the parameters of Herzog’s drama, there is much to mine within it.

The realisation may take a while to come but 4000 Miles is about two people who need one another but barely acknowledge it in their determined but also semi-enforced independence. Vera lives alone in an apartment block in Manhatten, a spacious place with two bedrooms and, it is hinted, a view downtown where the Twin Towers used to be. Her husband died a few years before and her main contact with the outside world are phone calls with an absent daughter and the neighbour opposite of equivalent age, as well as attending the funerals of her octogenarian friendship group. Leo meanwhile is actively separating himself from his closest relatives following an incident at the family home a few months before and an accident involving his cycling companion, leaving him emotionally stranded and seeking a non-judgmental port in which to ride out whatever storm afflicts him. Eyre’s production for Chichester Festival Theatre is effective at revealing this mutual need that both Vera and Leo treat incredibly casually, refusing to accept or recognise its full importance to them.

There is some mileage in the connection between alternate generations and while Leo and Vera report a troubled relationships with Leo’s mother who stands between them quite decisively without ever appearing in the play, grandmother and grandson share a political interest in Cuba and communist priniciples – not ideas that the writer elaborates in the more lifelike as-it-happens nature of 4000 Miles, but Eyre’s approach emphasises the unforced commonalities between the generations here, better able to understand and accept one another, perhaps even facing the same demons or wanting the same things from the world. Herzog is not the only writer to consider the grandparent-grandchild connection in a contentious parent-child scenario, but there is an unspoken and unexplained ease between Leo and Vera that makes this an interesting pairing and allows the truthful conversations to happen.

These emerge fairly naturally from their dialogue, although it is Leo who is more likely to be spontaneously affectionate and to recognise the value of sporadic physical contact in creating and maintaining the intimacy between them, one that is considerably expanded by shared experience of grief for different people that gives them common ground as well as a shared language during their time together in which they are euphemistic about their true feelings or avoid confronting the depths of them in front of the other. So 4000 Miles includes much that is unsaid, which can be a frustrating experience but it is all there under the surface of Herzog’s play which essentially dramatises a transitory state for its protagonists in which something will emerge for them both by the end of their time together, not substantially altering their lives and the essential hurts and guilt will remain, but a recalibration occurs that leaves them in a slightly altered state.

Eyre’s production is a little fussy in places, meticulously changing tiny details in the set to indicate time passing between scenes, shifting magazines and coffee cups or plumping cushions that slightly break the tension and the mood as a group of visible stage managers appear in the gloom. Otherwise this has a fairly decent pace, sagging only slightly when Atkins’s Vera is absent, the other duologues – with Leo’s girlfriend Bec and date Amanda – not quite reaching the same level of meaning. This is largely in Herzog’s writing rather than the production choices because the younger female characters are just there to reflect on Leo and feed the audience greater context about his life and choices rather than complete creations in their own right, making it harder for the audience to believe they continue to exist beyond the moment in this drama. They are not devoid of purpose though, and Elizabeth Chu’s Amanda is a particularly enjoyable cameo in a scene that bursts with liveliness and personality with Chu bringing real humour to her scene in a production that is often snarky rather than hilarious. But Amanda’s character isn’t much more than this and Bec (Nell Barlow) is little more purposeful, a reason for Leo to feel worse about himself and more isolated as their relationships strains.

The real treat here is Atkins’s wide-ranging masterclass performance as Vera, and this is what London has missed out on by letting this production go. Her Vera is so skillfully drawn and layered with the challenges of age and irascibility that make both communication and connection a real and genuine challenge for her, making physical contact with the person in front of her so difficult. Atkins is particularly good at portraying Vera’s memory loss and continual scrambling for the words she cannot find, having to replace them with indefinite substitutes. Atkins makes this feel so natural and exposing at the same time, the audience can feel her character’s brain actively searching and grasping as well as her growing exasperation with herself. Alongside the physical performance which is so precise, Atkins slowly thaws Vera’s detached exterior, revealing the soft spot for her grandson and the increasing reliance on his presence, something she gets used to very quickly. And while she may complain about his cleanliness and need for money, she checks on him while he is sleeping several times, revealing a maternal care and concern that she would never openly admit.

Atkins’s Vera is also a woman who has lived, dropping hints throughout about a bigger, harder, more colourful life before with two husbands, at least one of whom was a notorious philanderer, and a passionate love affair with a man she refuses to name. The added complexity here that Atkins finds is that Vera knows that all of this life is a memory, that the best is behind her – perhaps why she is so keen to have Leo around to live youth again through him – and it adds a melancholy to the performance that is very touching. Vera is tough on the surface, calmly batting away the intrusion of others with plenty of caustic one-liners, but Leo finds her alone and lonely, and his presence makes her realise that, quietly encouraging him to stay longer. It is a performance that lifts the play and makes its messages feel more universal.

Sebastian Croft as Leo is not an easy character to empathise with for quite different reasons, and while there are similar degrees of suffering, Leo has little remorse for some of the things that he has done or any recognition that he might have acted inappropriately. Leo has a tendency to blame others for his failings, often his mother, sometimes the short-sightedness of society itself for not condoning his behaviour, so it can be difficult for the character to gain enough traction to carry scenes without Vera, particularly when he is trying to convince the women he is involved with to accept his perspective and believe in his questionable motives.

Croft does find those moments of empathy and sadness in which Leo recognises that he is trapped and unable to go home or move forward until he confronts the things he has done more fully, but it never makes him entirely redeemable. There is a sense of confusion in Leo’s behaviour that does come through in Croft’s performance of a young man living without consequence and never entirely acknowledging the effect he has on others so there is a process of growing up to do within the play. And although that is by no means complete at the end of the 4000 Miles, Croft does develop the character towards taking charge of himself and who he needs to be.

There are advantages to relocating this production to Chichester, to a space where a greater intimacy is possible between audience and characters separated by only a few meters and a much smaller playing area than is possible in the Old Vic where it would have required a bit more work to project to a three-tiered auditorium. But Eyre has found that connection here in a realistic staging designed by Peter McKintosh that fills the platform with bookcases, creating an intellectual environment for Vera and Leo to share their views while also giving them a stable, welcoming room in which the older, established and more experienced figure can help to coax a younger relative through the first major crisis of their life. Will Leo end up like Vera? Maybe, but Herzog suggest that is not necessarily the worst thing that could happen, and with Atkins on excellent form, it is a sentiment that the audience can share. 4000 Miles perhaps isn’t a modern classic and the play has its problems but there is enough in this production and the performances to keep the audience watching.

4000 Miles is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 10 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Motive and the Cue – National Theatre

Hamlet is the most endlessly beguiling play and we cannot get enough of it – the profound reflections on life and death, the relativity of the human condition and the ways in which individual action have consequences for collective experience. This play reveals new secrets all the time as different actors and productions find something new to say. Is Hamlet a tragic son cheated out of his birth right and consumed by grief for his beloved dead father, is he a madman picturing phantoms that drive him to paranoia and destruction or a misogynist spoiled brat who subverts the emotions of others to give his own needs priority? Any way that you see this play, there is a Hamlet out there for you, an estimated two hundred thousand known Hamlets in fact as Jack Thorne’s rather brilliant new play reveals. And if there is anything as fascinating as Hamlet himself, it is the process an actor undergoes in order to play him.

The Motive and the Cue, directed by Sam Mendes at the National Theatre, is set across a month in the 1960s when Richard Burton rehearsed his Hamlet with the eminent Sir John Gilegud directing him. A terse and difficult production that provides just enough of the behind-the-scenes theatrical scandal to entertain the audience with catty exchanges between the two great egos. But Thorne also finds intense vulnerability in these men manifesting in different ways at different points in the process that say much about the instability and insecurity of their profession as well as the ways in which Hamlet as a text forces the performer to engage with its big existential questions, getting under the skin of both men in ways that Thorne shows never leaves them. Who these men and actors are before they play Hamlet and after is one of the big themes of this piece.

But there are also plenty of important ideas in here about performance more broadly, integrated into the month-long rehearsal period taking place ahead of the show’s Broadway opening – a production that theatre history states went on to considerable and record-breaking success. But Thorne is most interested in the craft of acting and directing in this play, how do you take a piece of writing and turn it into something fresh and full-blooded and at what cost to those involved. There are lots of different things happening, mostly subtly, across The Motive and the Cue – what does it mean for a revered screen actor like Burton to not only take on one of the most challenging roles of all time, one that actors measure themselves against, but to relinquish the control of himself and of the prestige his fame has brought to be directed within the intensive theatre process? The debate rages beneath the surface of this play about the difference between screen and stage actors and what their training and methods bring to the process of character excavation and discovery. And while Thorne is reasonably even-handed about this with both Gielgud and Burton coming in for equal shares of criticism and celebration, the ask of Hamlet for different kinds of actor is a compelling debate within the play – and one, incidentally, that Sam Mendes is uniquely placed to address through the combination of theatre and cinema within his work.

The Motive and the Cue is also a play about theatre history, about the unique place this role holds in it and the many times and ways it has been played before. The character of Burton is deeply challenged by the idea of ‘his’ Hamlet and what that should consistently be across the rehearsal period and within the performance. But Thorne situates this in the context of all the other Hamlets that have gone before, and most particularly with Gielgud’s, and to a lesser extent Olivier’s, arguing that the latter’s on screen incarnation sets a kind of impossible template for others to follow. Thorne stages numerous clashes between the actor-director Gilegud and Burton who argue about interpretation, energy and Hamlet’s state of mind at any given moment, Gilegud floundering in the face of Burton’s muscularity within the role that removes doubt or reflection while Burton endlessly resents the feeling that he is being led towards a version of Gielgud’s own Hamlet, erupting at notes and suggested line readings that ultimately get neither very close to the production they wanted to create.

Thorne too is fascinated by the shifting tides for actors explored in this play, the joy of a new generation finding fresh meaning and purpose in Shakespeare’s text, but also the quiet tragedy of a baton being passed, of a former ‘great’ feeling (realistically or not) that his time and relevance is ending, that he is out of touch and out of favour with less declamatory, more earthy styles of acting so vitally alive in front of him. But it works the other way around too, and Thorne shows Burton struggling with the classicism he so desperately wants to master, to be revered and respected for the enduring creation of great art as Gielgud and Olivier are before him, but failing to reconcile his inexperience in this instance with the hope of producing that memorable, eternal performance that this play in particular demands that an actor aspire to.

Within this, Thorne is able to neatly explore the vulnerability in both men, Gielgud an elder statesman but ultimately alone, an isolated figure in another country miles from the comfort of an absent and much missed partner, feeling irrelevant and attacked by forces of modernity. Burton meanwhile grapples with memories of his parent in a play that sees father-son configurations throughout – in Hamlet and Hamlet Senior, Burton and his wayward miner father, and even in Gielgud and Burton. Trying to understand Shakespeare’s character leads both men to similar confrontation in their own lives, and one of Thorne’s most deft accomplishments is aligning extracts from Hamlet with the emerging drama of the rehearsal room and its environs.

The Motive and the Cue is structured around the days of the rehearsal with the audience dropping in at irregular intervals as preparations progress. Each chapter title has an associated quote from Hamlet relevant to the scene that is about to be played and Thorne doesn’t always select the most obvious ones. Sometimes scenes begin with large sections from Hamlet performed as though on stage in Burton’s eventual production but these merge back into the rehearsal room. At other times, Thorne follows three of his cast members into their real lives – Burton himself at home with his new wife Elizabeth Taylor and separately Gielgud who exists in a small break room and once in his own lodgings. There is something temporary about the state in which they all live, part of the actors’ life perhaps but it is also rootless, even possibly soulless, empty beyond the playing spaces where they are most fully alive. But these emotional depths and vulnerabilities shape and are brought into their conceptions of Hamlet.

Sam Mendes is the ideal director for a production like this with his rare ability to suggest the epic and the intimate concurrently. In The Motive and the Cue, Mendes applies this simply and subtly but to considerable effect, melding this illustrious history of Hamlet in performance that so troubled Burton with the very pressing and fractious concerns of this specific production and indeed of this one actor finding his way roughly to the part. Mendes’s staging choices capture this entirely, the insignificance of this Hamlet among the two hundred thousand but also its urgency and the personal deconstruction that it brings to these people in this moment. Mendes has long blended his experience of film and theatre, and here uses intersecting horizontal and vertical curtains to frame scenes in different ways to create intimacy and scale in the most cinematic sense – much as Robert Icke did with The Red Barn on the same stage – small and tight shots for external scenes, zooming out to wide lens for the capacious and intimidating emptiness of the rehearsal room that so oppresses Burton and Gielgud to a degree.

The style that Mendes employs here is like a behind-the-scenes, making-of theatre documentary, putting the audience in the position of the camera observing the creative process. The layers of a director and a director-character are really interesting, leading to plenty of theatre insights about control and purpose in the rehearsal room, the kind of support different actors need and how all the pieces have to fit together. This play reveals the hugely exposing process of creating a performance and the stakes for all involved if the piece fails, and Mendes gives space for all of this elliptical discussion while still providing momentum and meaning in both the Hamlet and Hamlet production sections.

The only possible false note here is the presence of Elizabeth Taylor as little more than a device for Burton to interact with outside his work, and while Thorne is accurately reflecting their life together at this time, giving her some very funny lines, she never quite feels like a whole person and never really like Elizabeth Taylor either. It creates a major female role in the drama, explores her parallel experience particularly with Gielgud as both found fame at a young age, but there is little development for her, nor is her presence entirely integrated within or modeled on the Hamlet sections in the way that other characters are. It also takes time away from the wider cast who despite a starry list including the painfully underused Janie Dee and Luke Norris – referencing perhaps the famous faces playing smaller roles in Burton’s Hamlet just for the honour of working with Gielgud – but we get too little of their struggle in the context of their lead actor and director’s destructive bickering.

Johnny Flynn gives a quite astounding performance as Burton, capturing the clamorous insistance of his vocal intonation and the very particular pace and timbre of his voice. But this is considerably more than an impression, ranging from certainty that the character exhibits in early rehearsals and a relaxed ease with his fame hoping that others will respect but accept his groundedness, through to the drunken rage and sulkiness that stems from Burton’s fear of the very vulnerability he requires to truly inhabit this role. Flynn makes his Burton awful and charismatic at the same time, erudite and instinctual as an actor but fighting demons – his past, his fame, his Hamlet – that consume him.

Mark Gatiss’s Gielgud is both more easily sympathetic but also more guarded, carrying around the weight of his eminence like a millstone. This Gielgud is adrift, struggling to find meaning and purpose, looking for it in the wrong places and only feeling more disconnected from the life he has lived and what it all meant as the acerbic relationship with Burton takes its tolls. Gatiss has always been particularly good at quiet despair, and it serves him well here with acres of feeling emanating from his pained loneliness as he grapples with new actors and new Hamlets in a rapidly changing profession.

The Motive and the Cue is a layered and engaging piece about the process of theatre, the things that evolve and the things that don’t, how performances are created and thrust into the world and why it feels so transient and eternal at the same time. Mendes and Thorne celebrate a play that test us all, audience, director and actor, a four hundred year old enigma that has been played two hundred thousand ways and will surely be played two hundred thousand more. Burton may or may not have found his Hamlet, but Thorne’s play shows why it remains an actor’s greatest and most rewarding challenge.

The Motive and the Cue is at the National Theatre until 15 July with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Private Lives – Donmar Warehouse

Private Lives - Donmar Warehouse

The sun is setting on Michael Longhurst’s time at the Donmar Warehouse and his penultimate production is a timeless classic, Noel Coward’s sparky and charismatic relationship comedy about middle aged love, Private Lives, a fairly safe bet which this century alone has resulted in some great comic pairings from Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan to Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor. But Coward’s work is tricky to get right and it always looks far easier than it really is. So while you can do much within the boundaries of his plays – tone it up, tone it down, change the sexuality of the characters and even their gender – what you cannot do is force the rhythm of Coward’s writing either by trying too hard to make it funny or by snarling up the purpose that Coward ascribes to make it mean something else instead.

Coward is a vastly misunderstood writer in contemporary theatre, often dismissed or caricatured as a creator of farcical fluff whose characters swan around with cigarette holders, drinking cocktails and dispensing witty bon mots. At the same time, Coward’s writing tends to be stultified and suffocated by its stage presentation, forever trapped in heavy sets and dreary 30s-inspired drawing rooms that hamper his spirited characters and their often wickedly complex love lives. Making Coward too cosy is a common problem, draining energy and resonance from his plots that can make the writer and his productions feel like escapist museum pieces.

But Coward is a searing social commentator, a writer who presented alternative forms of living, gave prominence to female sexuality in his work and explored the strange entanglements of love, lust and the burdensome reality of living with someone you cannot live without. There is a real equality in Coward’s writing that gives equivalent precedence to the affairs and needs of men and women, and nowhere is this more prominent than in arguably his greatest marriage play, Private Lives in which former spouses Elyot and Amanda find themselves back in each other’s lives and at each other’s throats once again despite both having just married other people. There is a fine but perfect balance in this play, neither character is better or worse than the other, both remain sympathetic enough to keep the audience entertained for three Acts and both behave appallingly in equal measure. They have to be an equal match in order for the roundabout of love and loathing to work effectively as well as making sense of the shifting power play that motors the crucial second Act.

Longhurst’s production for the Donmar has a good go at the play, taking it out of the fusty interpretations that could quickly derail the stylish French setting and establishing an openness about the characters’ sexual shenanigans that lead to betrayal and resentment as past and present mix. But the interpretation misses this key supposition that Amanda and Elyot have to be equals for the delicately balanced comedy to work, instead introducing a darker abusive relationship and domestic violence subtext that seems to grasp for contemporary relevance without quite understanding enough about Coward’s purpose. The Private Lives webpage mentions only that there will be smoking on stage but buried away in the Donmar website there is a content warning for ‘scenes of adultery, sexual coercion, verbal and physical abuse on stage’ but this isn’t quite strong enough to cover the intensity of sequences in which Elyot grabs Amanda by the throat and throws her onto a sofa. A similar pattern emerges in Act Three as the bickering Sibyl and Victor edge towards a mirorred encounter, the actor playing Victor about to grab Sibyl by the neck as the lights go out.

This approach unbalances the play entirely and makes little sense of the ongoing attraction between Elyot and Amanda – who notably shows no sign of trauma or physical fear of her ex-husband at any other point in the play. In fact, at the start of Act Three, she even plays down the spat between them in ways that don’t seem like a woman trying to conceal a pattern of domestic abuse but an embarrassment that the couple were observed losing control and behaving so badly to one another. And this is because Coward never intended for violence to be the focus of this particular story, Elyot and Amanda are two people who are addicted to one another and shouldn’t be together because they create a mercurial, toxic relationship. The language they use and their attitudes to one another are certainly of their time and worthy of further consideration, but this is a comedy that gets physical in which Amanda has to be an equal partner in that for it to work. Coward wrote plenty of serious material but that’s not what Private Lives was intended to be and nor does this emphasis make sense within the wider perspective of the play.

This added domestic abuse angle is called out in the Donmar’s performance in these moments of bristling violence by Jack Knowles lighting design and Simon Slater’s composition that heighten and hone in on these actions. But it completely alters the balance across the entire play, giving all the power to Elyot who not only poses a physical danger to the women he marries but simultaneously loses any sympathy or purpose in the story. It becomes impossible to believe that Amanda would be swept up in the romance of seeing him again in Deauville and agree to run out on her new husband to be with a man who abused her. Likewise, at the play’s conclusion when the pair seek to escape the warring exes Sibyl and Victor, why would Amanda leave with a man who frightened and violently attacked her the previous evening. By taking Coward’s original meaning out of context, this production uses this interpretation as a dramatic device to distinguish itself from earlier versions of the play without giving due time to properly consider what this means or its effect on the women of the story other than in the moments in which the violence is happening. As a result, a very serious subject is treated too lightly, completely unbalancing the psychology and comic rhythm of the play.

The secondary effect is to make Elyot a deeply unsympathetic character from the start with Stephen Mangan’s interpretation emphasising the boorish, patriarchal nature of the character from his first moments on the balcony, often raising his voice to shout at his much younger wife, his former partner and, in Act Three, at Victor as well. It also entirely divests Elyot of his charm, something which the writer carefully layers into the character to make him a little exaggerated and silly, even deliberately outrageous but never the outright and irredeemable brute that he seems to be in this production. Elyot can be sulky and childlike, louche and uncaring at times, even selfish but he has to have charisma, to know the things that he says are nonsense and often said for effect or to create reactions, but making him an abuser with a developed pattern of behaviour and misogynistic tendencies to the women in his life that he makes unreasonable demands of and you lose the audience in the first scene.

And it is a shame because there are lots of other things about this production of Private Lives that work really nicely including a freeing approach to interpreting Coward’s text that speaks to the universal experience of love and relationships in which characters fall for the wrong person, Amanda refuses to be shamed for taking a number of lovers between her marriages while the boundaries between love, lust and bad habits are nicely blurred in ways that feel recognisable. Coward has such a deep understanding of human desire and how it makes people behave resulting in petty jealousy, resentment, and the big and little hurts that come with all of that, and he writes with understanding about the things people sacrifice for even the brief period of happiness that Elyot and Amanda are afforded by this play. Relationships in Coward’s work are defining and consuming but they are awfully messy and often fail to provide a neat, happy ending which comes across well in Longhurst’s interpretation as the romance of being newly weds very quickly smacks against the reality of the person they have married.

Rachel Stirling is the reason to watch this version of Private Lives and she seems very comfortable inhabiting Amanda, bringing great comic timing and towering certainty to the role. Amanda is a woman who knows who she is and what she wants, decisive and often brutally frank, Stirling gives her a no-nonsense maturity, unwilling to compromise for anything less than a perfect outcome. But this Amanda is impulsive and emotionally unreserved, allowing as much love to flow out to Elyot as loathing a few moments later, and Stirling navigates the comedy mishaps of Act One, the changing rhythms of Act Two and the haughty disdain for everyone in Act Three really well. And while she takes the over-egged abuse in her stride, this is a very nicely pitched comic performance that does much of the heavy lifting.

Mangan though hasn’t quite got the measure of Elyot yet, he is too shouty and often too forceful in the comic lines that should flow effortlessly. The timing is great and there is skill in being able to deliver a comedy performance but Coward, like Oscar Wilde, is all in the writing, they provide the rhythm that will take the actor to the right point and pushing too hard signals and then stifles the laugh. Act Three is better when the more sarcastic and exhausted Elyot drops all pretence of civility but ahead of Press Night later this week, Mangan needs to inject a lightness into this performance, a bit more levity that will find Elyot’s charm and attractiveness, making him an equally comic rather than a forbidding presence.

Secondary performances from Laura Carmichael as Sibyl and Sargon Yelda as Victor make much of fairly small roles but both actors grow into their big scenes in Act Three as they try to deal with their respective marital failures while finding themselves in the same contentious cycle. The potent but cheap music that Amanda refers to is provided by a couple of live musicians which add to the atmosphere, although an end of interval sequence in which the cellist refuses to leave the stage is a little baffling.

The whole production takes place on Hildegard Bechtler’s 1930s double-balcony set that stages the first Act at the circle level. It is a shame that the main stage is covered in a blue tarpaulin that proves unconvincing as the Deauville sea with quite obvious furniture evident underneath which slightly spoils the effect, but the swift reveal in Act Two as the balconys move backwards and the sheet reveals a chic apartment that is heavily decorated but very stylish. It doesn’t quite have the representative approach that gave the Old Vic’s glorious Present Laughter such contemporary appeal but Bechtler has caught the tone of the era in the plush and silky surroundings.

This production has clearly done some careful thinking about the play and the version it wanted to present but it hasn’t always made the right choices. Coward is harder than it looks and while it is interesting and important to question the language and behaviours in classic plays and to explore new ways to engage with troubling content, these decision still need to make sense within the context of the story and the character arcs it presents. Noel Coward isn’t a playwright who needs ‘updating’ in this way, his social commentary and analysis of relationships is all there, we just need to stop crushing it.

Private Lives is at the Donmar Warehouse until 27 May with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

A Little Life – Harold Pinter Theatre

A Little Life (by Jan Versweyveld)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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