Category Archives: Play

The King – London Film Festival

Timothee Chalamet in The King, Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Macbeth – Chichester Festival Theatre

 

Macbeth - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

“Blood will have blood,” Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most atmospheric plays, charting the murderous tyranny of the Scottish warrior king who kills his predecessor for the crown and then seeks to secure his throne with further crimes. But in what is a relatively simple premise, productions often fail to fully reconcile the play’s competing drivers, the psychological complexity of the central character, the supernatural hand of fate that uses prophecy and magic to create an overarching inevitability, and the warlike state in which the uncontainable ambitions of men are given bloody reign. What productions of Macbeth fail to decide is just who or what is in control.

It has been a long time since a truly satisfactory Macbeth appeared in the West End while beyond at the capital’s fringe venues again and again the power of Shakespeare’s text is weakened by poor decision-making and an assumption that the story is far easier to stage than it really is – get it right and the play is a glorious howl of pain that will dazzle and electrify an audience with a complex world of violence and retribution they will never forget, get it wrong and the whole thing clangs like a discordant bell, as the National Theatre discovered with last year’s disastrous version starring Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff set in an inexplicable post-apocalyptic world of bin bag trees and concrete where only hierarchy had survived.

But suddenly the tide may be turning and good Macbeths are like buses, none for ages and then two come along at once. In late August, Antic Disposition brought their fantastic traverse production to Temple Church which smartly integrated the witches into the nineteenth-century household of the Macbeths as servants and messengers permanently shaping and controlling the action as Harry Anton’s wonderful Thane of Glamis crumbled under the weight of his murderous burden. And now, in Chichester, John Simm’s Macbeth directed by Paul Miller offers a more deterministic approach to the character that pulls away from the brute strength of the seasoned warrior to offer a cerebral and often sardonic take on Macbeth’s responsibility for his own actions while developing a partnership of malevolent and ambitious equals with co-star Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth.

Staged in the hexagonal Chichester Festival Theatre, the action takes place on a glass stage raised above a permanently exposed circle of rocky landscape. Designed by Simon Daw, the set is at once the blasted heath upon which Macbeth first learns of his destiny from the Weird Sisters, remaining visible throughout as a reminder of the point at which his life was irreversibly set upon this path, and it also represents the rugged landscape of Scotland above and for which the characters endlessly contend, the audience reminded of the bigger prize at stake. But there are other interpretations for Daw’s choices; the scarred earth devoid of grass could also suggest the permanent battlefield, a state of national warfare against the invading Norwegian army that becomes a civil war for the crown of Scotland – the battlefield also being the place in which Macbeth forged his character and earned his first plaudits from King Duncan, ones that inspire his ruthless quest for greater advancement.

This earthy pit also becomes a burial ground for several characters, if not all consistently, the glass stage parting to receive the bodies of Macduff’s son (a little awkwardly) and of Banquo, a nod to the shadow of inevitable death that hangs over the play, as well as the pile of bodies that Macbeth’s conscience accrues from the soldiers who die in the opening battle to the final murders that announce the play’s end game. But there is one more possibility that presents itself and Daw’s covered pit may also represent the way in which we fetishize and misuse history to suit our current political and social purpose.

Historians have long debated the practice of placing everyday objects from the past behind glass screens in museums, investing them with a reverence they never held during their period of use. Thus, the glass platform above the landscape may imply the ways in which Macbeth actively misapplies his own history and experience as a successful military leader to facilitate his role as King and dictator. There are strong notions of power and it corrupting influence which run throughout the production, showcasing how a lack of legitimacy needs to be circumvented, so the preservation of the blasted health / battlefield / earth of Scotland behind this glass screen speaks to Macbeth’s own misguided preservation of purpose that determines his behaviour and shores-up his despotic regime.

There is, for the most part, a fascinating intensity to Miller’s production, moodily lit by Mark Doubleday to create an eerie and intimidating world of dark deeds. The first half runs up until the death of Banquo and has a real momentum as events accelerate quickly to place Macbeth on the throne with plots and conversations taking place in shadowy corners and half-lit portions of the stage that well exude the gloomy oppression of the Macbeths’ castle. Particularly striking is the scene immediately after Duncan’s murder in which the blood-soaked figures of Macbeth and his wife are thrown into elemental relief by two well-position spotlights that cross the stage, simultaneously bathing them in light and darkness like other worldly beings. Just before the interval, Miller and the creative team create the feeling that everything is now in place, and Macbeth’s ascendancy is guaranteed.

If the second half of this production doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of the first it is by no means a reflection on the interpretation of the central characters whose interaction and stage presence is gripping throughout. For part two it is really a question of tone and two crucial decisions that interrupt the flow of the action. First, arguably, the interval comes at the wrong point and while the second half opens with a strong version of the Banquet scene, a longer piece of contextual exposition between two interchangeable soldiers drains the tension and could have been cut to make way for the fiery witches cauldron that follows. Bathed in red light and using Tim Reid’s psycho-horror video design (that looks better in the photos than it does on stage) this would have been a stronger opener, as well as a chance to mirror the focus on the witches at the start of Act One.

The second fateful decision is to play the tediously long scene between Malcolm and Macduff in full which switches the focus from the more engaging intrigues of Macbeth’s psychological decline to a sunny day somewhere else. Running for more than 10-minutes but feeling longer and weakly performed, it is a scene that adds very little to the play except for textural purists. Partly it is too focused on a character no one cares much about regardless of the production, but also creates an unnecessary “light” break in the carefully constructed tension of the preceding hours. Miller has worked hard, has earned our undivided attention and this scene pulls us out of the much more interesting perspective of Macbeth while we wait for key information to be delivered to Macduff. The airy birdsong and spring-like feel are a confusing distraction in a show that has otherwise focused on the ambition of one man and the horror his action perpetuates. Both these choices temporarily derail the action in what could have been a slightly tighter production.

Nonetheless, John Simm has seized the opportunity to make the character his own, using his own ability to play dark humour to bring a different angle to the performance. His Macbeth makes perfect psychological sense – a rare achievement in a difficult character to pitch – ensuring that his relationship with Duncan is less ingratiating than often seen and frustrated by his decision to make Malcolm his heir. Just as Christopher Ravenscroft’s softly spoken Duncan starts to announce his decision, Simm subtly shifts his weight as though about to step forward to claim his rightful place, only to be stunned to hear a lesser rival’s name. It is this outrageous dismissal that goads his Macbeth to consider murder, an arrogant certainty that carries him through the rest of the play.

Simm may not be a brutal thug who could tear a man to pieces, but his Macbeth is a dangerous figure – an understanding of quiet menace that Simm brings from his Pinter successes – so certain of his destiny, of a right to rule and his invincibility that after he is crowned his personality awkwardly changes towards old friend Banquo, a paranoid suspicion creeping into the performance that sours their affection for one another. Equally, Simm’s Macbeth refuses help from his co-conspirator, ejecting his wife to make gruesome decisions without further consultation. There is no question that this Macbeth knows his own mind and follows it relentlessly, full of his own agency that leaves him notably alone as the rebels surround the castle, a deluded, isolated figure on an empty stage clinging calmly to his certainty that he will prevail.

And Simm brings real clarity to Shakespeare’s verse, not only delivering the lines with a feel for everyday conversation but with a true understanding of every image and classical allusion. The soliloquies are delivered with confidence and while this is not a Macbeth whose mind is wrenched to pieces by his crime, Simm uses them like Hamlet to explore the conflicting emotions that chart Macbeth’s fluctuating journey through his own ability to order and control his thoughts, bringing small touches of gallows humour to draw out different dimensions in the role.

Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth is every bit as good, developing an early partnership with Simm that suggests a marriage of true equality in the early part of the play as they both embark on their joint endeavour. Kirwan is a tower of strength to her husband, helping him to overcome his doubts when his resolve crumbles, confident that the opportunity is perfectly within their grasp if they stick to her plan. She’s not an evil Lady Macbeth but a very smart one, speaking in hushed tones as she urges her husband to the action she knows is right, while later assuming the magisterial dignity her husband lacks when she struggles to shield her guests from the effect of Macbeth’s visions.

Kirwan’s performance is the rock around which the rest of the production is anchored, stately and calm, the character’s determination which Kirwan evokes creates this balance in Lady Macbeth’s marriage that lasts until the point of Duncan’s death, making her husband’s decision to cast her aside so shocking. The sense of complete partnership between them broken by his decisive isolation, and as Shakespeare takes great leaps with the character off stage, Kirwan conveys Lady Macbeth’s own descent into madness with sympathy and credibility.

Among the surrounding cast, Stuart Laing’s Banquo impresses as Macbeth’s warrior comrade, divided by the witches prophesy that generates jealousy and fear between old friends, while Michael Balogun as Macduff conveys his own fury well, although the final confrontation between the antagonists is strangely short and underwhelming. Some of the secondary characters however are less clear, often more a distraction from the central storyline than helping to stoke the unfolding drama.

Is there a West End transfer in here -potentially. This two hour and 50-minute production does need a trim and the tone has to refocus more consistently on the driving intensity of Macbeth’s jagged purpose, but Dew’s multi-interpretative set-design has much to say about the various underlying themes of the play and has true purpose in the context of the action. It has been a long time since the West End saw a truly great Macbeth so perhaps this is a chance for Simm and Kirwan to buck the trend with impressive performances that offer a different perspective on their characters while creating a potency in their exchanges that is never less than compelling.

Macbeth is at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 26 October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Blood Wedding – Young Vic

Blood Wedding - Young Vic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Very Expensive Poison – The Old Vic

A Very Expensive Poison - Old Vic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hansard – National Theatre

Hansard - National Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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