Category Archives: Play

Switzerland – The Ambassadors Theatre

Switzerland - Theatre Royal Bath

On St Martin’s Lane shows related to two of the twentieth-century’s greatest crime writers are currently playing side by side. Both women who navigated a male-dominated literary world and experienced the political, economic and social fluctuations of the post-war era that changed their writing. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is in its 65th year making it the longest-running play in the West End by some way, endlessly attracting audiences entranced by her ability to create engaging and innovative scenarios with character-driven mysteries. Next door at the Ambassadors, Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland arrives in the West End for the first time, putting Patricia Highsmith in the spotlight with an intriguing duologue about the nature of the authorial voice.

Christie and Highsmith like Conan Doyle before them are authors arguably eclipsed by their greatest creations, works of fiction so tangible they have taken-on a life and momentum of their own. Hercule Poirot has been frequently reinvented on screen and while David Suchet’s interpretation seemed definitive it hasn’t stopped a new Kenneth Branagh film franchise, or an impending BBC adaption of The ABC Murders scheduled for Christmas with John Malkovich as the illustrious detective. Likewise, there is a Sherlock Holmes for all seasons and whether you want a classically imperious Basil Rathbone, an intimidating Jeremy Brett or the social awkwardness of Benedict Cumberbatch these are characters like James Bond and even Harry Potter that have escaped the confines of their author’s imagination and entered the collective consciousness, public property obscuring their creator’s purpose and sometimes even their wishes.

These characters can be a burden as much as they are a boon to their author who after years of being tied to the same kind of writing try unsuccessfully to break free. Poirot and Holmes were both killed-off before Conan Doyle was forced to relent and brought the latter back, while Poirot has a second life in Sophie Hannah’s new novels endorsed by the Christie estate. Switzerland is the story of Patricia Highsmith’s struggle with her own famous creation, the chancer and sociopath Tom Ripley who consumed and dominated a career of voracious and variable productivity. As a representative from her American publishing house is dispatched to convince the irascible Highsmith to pen one final Ripley novel, the writer is torn between the unwelcome expectation to deliver and fascination with revisiting a character that has always inspired her creativity.

In Lucy Bailey’s wonderfully full production, transferring from the Theatre Royal Bath, the emphasis is firmly on the process of invention and the great cost to the writer in trying to inhabit the world of the novel. Highsmith’s reluctance seems to stem from both a concern that she has lost the ability to write Ripley as powerfully as she once did, as well as fearing the effect of re-entering the mind of a character that thrills her. Switzerland is a taut piece of drama that uses Highsmith’s circumstances by the mid 1990s, living in self-imposed exile from the United States in a famously neutral country with limited human contact and a need for drink and cigarettes, to consider the entire dedication of self needed to become a truly great writer.

Genius is often partnered with arrogance, unpleasantness and a desire to flout social norms, and here Highsmith displays a disregard for any form of social structure or rules that directly reflect the character she creates, a charming young man who does the same but with murderous and self-aggrandising outcomes. Who is the most dangerous person in this scenario, the fictional creation or the mind that created it? This is a dominated theme in Murray-Smith’s piece, and something that Bailey seizes upon to play with tone and the boundary between author and character.

Driven by the arrival of Edward Ridgeway, Bailey utilises Switzerland’s three “chapters” to first show us the famous Highsmith in command of a life she is only prepared to live on her own terms and refusing to be flattered by the adoring young man who arrives at her door. In the middle section, we feel the power shift as Highsmith and Edward find a common ground, her respect growing as his fear of her diminishes, allowing him to show his erudition and engage in a lively debate about the literary lifestyle. The final act should not be spoiled, but Bailey’s experience of staging crime drama including the impressive Witness for the Prosecution is brought to bear in a subtly developing tension that has the quality of a Highsmith novel spilled over into her real life, making a crucial point about the indivisibility of the author from their fiction.

Running for 95-minutes without an interval, visually very little changes in William Dudley’s set so, like the perfect crime, all the elements must be there from the start. Highsmith has been given a fully furnished flat full of books and a space for writing, but it is the secondary details that become the focus. Every wall has a collection of weapons on display which, reflecting the text in which the central pair debate the most powerful guns to commit a murder, suggests more than a hobby, rather a collective obsession for the writer who thinks society gets too het-up about killing. The exterior world of snowy mountain ranges is also visible through the flat, and, while this initially feels like a calm retreat, it soon morphs into isolation and exposure, helping to wordlessly shift the atmosphere to something more sinister as the relationship between Highsmith and Ridgeway changes gear.

A work not driven by plot but almost entirely by character can be hard to sustain, even more so with only two actors who spend a lot of time chewing-over ideas, making this a very talky play focused on debate and engagement of theory more than storyline, so it is credit to Bailey and her performers that they hold the attention throughout, utilising every word to inform our understanding of character, tone and context.

As Highsmith, Phyllis Logan is a dominant presence, lone and comfortable in the room she has so carefully constructed to hide from the world. Throughout, the audience is never quite sure how seriously to take her assertions of independence, her hatred of the New York publishing scene and the racial prejudice she occasionally exhibits. Ridgeway accuses her of posing, of espousing views that she doesn’t believe for effect, so Logan uses the performance to quite skilfully make us wonder whether this is a writer who assumes her characters’ traits in lieu of her own, and if “Patricia Highsmith” is just one of many personas she adopts.

Murray-Smith also has much to say about the lifestyle of the writer, the single-mindedness and knowledge of their own rhythms that sets them apart. Logan uses this to suggest a touch of the Hemingways, an author almost on the run from reality, ever aware that her lifestyle and predilections cannot find peace in ordinary society. There is a huge vulnerability that underlies Logan’s characterisation, helping the audience to see through the hard drinking and aggressive manner to something more fragile, a fear of being inconsequential that makes so much sense of Highsmith’s behaviour. Logan’s trick is to keep us guessing on how that will eventually manifest itself – breakdown or murder?

The combative relationship the novelist develops with Edward Ridgeway is central to Switzerland, challenging the pair to an interminable battle in which the stakes only ever seem to get higher. Calum Findlay’s growing confidence is well charted, balancing a nervous excitement at meeting an idol with strong desire to prove his intellectual worth on all her favourite subjects from weaponry to books and the New York landscape. Findlay’s performance takes Ridgeway in the opposite direction to Logan’s Highsmith and while time reveals her essential fragility, it shows his inner steel, hiding beneath a veneer of polite awe.

Any fans of crime fiction will know never to trust a stranger who turns up unexpectedly, but Findlay’s approach is to be entirely disarming, a chastened young man in cosy jumpers, a literary nerd eager to please his celebrated host. Yet Ridgeway’s wardrobe evolves as his true character comes to light, and Findlay grasps the darker moments in which the pair consider a new Ripley plot to suggest deeper waters beneath the surface. Almost from the start Ridgeway is a collection of conundrums and contradictions, a sweet boy with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Highsmith’s back catalogue, a harmless fan who helps to concoct a dastardly murder plot for the new Ripley that trips too easily off the tongue, as though considered long ago.

Bailey has firm control of the ebb and flow of power as the production unfolds, retaining a degree of mystery and danger, a tipping point that could just as easily be dismissed as paranoia or could develop into something much darker. Switzerland is a fine tribute to a writer of psychological fiction whose own life was full of drama and incident. Side-by-side with Agatha Christie on St Martin’s Lane feels appropriate for two authors who entirely reshaped the crime novel and deserve to be remembered with as much enthusiasm as the characters who eclipsed them.

Switzerland is at The Ambassadors Theatre until 5 January and tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.    

Advertisements

Hadestown – National Theatre

Hadestown - National Theatre

The UK and America have a fairly health theatre exchange programme which every year allows audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to enjoy the very best shows that each has to offer, as well as facilitating the transfer of creative talent. From next Spring, our American cousins can look forward to transfer productions of Ink, Network and The Lehman Trilogy (itself an Italian import) all of which should be unmissable, having already savoured Angels in America, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Travesties in 2018. In the opposite direction, London has snapped-up Annie Baker’s John and two-part sensation The Inheritance currently enjoying an extended West End run after its UK premiere at the Young Vic. Now the National Theatre has a vibrant production of the musical Hadestown which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016.

A little over a year ago it was a musical that rescued the Olivier Theatre from a difficult run of substandard new plays. Common and Salome had reviewed poorly, the much-debated tricky staging proving an insurmountable challenge to these productions. And then Dominic Cooke came in with Follies and made it look so easy, a glorious piece of work that is rightly returning for an additional run in February. Suddenly the Olivier was alive again and whether sat in front row of the stalls or the back of the circle, every heart-aching moment filled this enormous room. Success breeds success and 2018 has subsequently seen the Olivier host a wonderful version of Translations, an engaging discussion of death in Exit the King and a stylishly impressive Antony and Cleopatra which will play in repertory with latest arrival Hadestown.

A much anticipated production that earned rave reviews in New York, Hadestown is a concept album turned stage musical by Anais Mitchell about the Orpheus and Eurydice’s legend that comes to the National prior to a Broadway run. The story unites the travelling Eurydice, brought by the Fates to a particular bar on the day that the Goddess Persephone returns to the world bringing Spring and Summer in her wake. Eurydice, a realist who sees things as they really are, is charmed by the song of Orpheus, a young musician who dreams of better worlds. As their love deepens, Persephone must return to an unhappy marriage with husband Hades in the Underworld, a God of ominous power. With Orpheus distracted by his music, Eurydice is alone and hungry with nothing to sell but her soul.

Hadestown smartly relocates this Greek myth to a pseudo 1920s / modern day New Orleans-like bar, which offers plenty of visual and musical influences that make this such an intriguing and unusual experience. Structurally, the show is narrated by the rather kindly but portentous Hermes (an excellent Andre De Shields), the messenger of the Gods, who becomes the master of ceremonies and wry observer, ushering-in as well as commenting on unfolding events. Along with the three Fates who stalk the action – musically a 1960s-esque girl-group (Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri) – Hermes is a reminder to the other characters that their own agency is limited by a bigger plan for them all, which creates a driving sense of inevitability that forces the show to its conclusion.

Along with the inescapability of fate, Hermes also represents our desire to see a different outcome from the same set of circumstances. There is a strong idea of the cyclical nature of the world in various guises, so in one respect we constantly revisit and retell stories like the Orpheus and Eurydice legend applying their meaning to our own times, but there is also a meta-reference in Hadestown to the show itself playing its story again and again every night, as one version ends, another is soon to begin. All of this contributes to a restrictive containment from which the characters can never break free.

These cycles also appear in other areas of the show. Rachel Chavkin’s production is notably about the effect of the seasons, predominantly the recurrent climatic change that eternally rotates fecundity and bloom with deciduousness and decay. The characters come to life with Persephone’s arrival freed from an extended winter that references turbulent storms and prolonged cold, reflecting her own troubled relationship with Hades. Her presence in the world brings warm light in Bradley Kings design, a sense of freedom and happiness that they forget is time-limited, ever hopeful that the cost will be deferred, but Persephone must always leave, even against her own inclination.

The seasonal theme is also used as a metaphor for human ageing and attraction, as the bloom of womanhood in particular fades to be replaced by the lure of a younger option. The is one of Hadestown’s most interesting themes as the God of the Underworld puts strain on his rotten marriage by pursuing the innocent and troubled Eurydice. Persephone’s former glory, the previous allure with which she entranced Hades in a garden is repeatedly referenced, asking questions about the expectations placed on women’s physical appearance, about the unreasonable power of memory and the value of maturity. There is clear resonance with the #MeToo experience as well, particularly in the ways in which powerful men casually coerce and corrupt impressionable women.

The action takes place in two overlapping locations, a bar in America and a foundry in hell for which Rachel Hauck has designed one multipurpose and characterful set that easily travels between the real and devilish worlds with a change of lighting and some ingenious use of the Olivier revolve. Multiple locations are often created across separate sets, turning the full stage to each them, but designers and directors are becoming increasingly creative in the way they envisage its use, most recently with an entire ship’s hull swinging into view in Antony and Cleopatra like a giant shark fin. Pleasingly, Hauck has conjured something entirely different for Hadestown, keeping the main stage entirely stationary while two smaller middle circles rotate at differing speeds in opposing directions.

Here, Chavkin places the ensemble as workman on the outer revolve to show the ongoing and repetitive nature of their daily grind with choreographed segments in Hades’s foundry. Then, in selective bigger moments, a smaller section of the drum rises up to create a platform which has a rock concert glamour that varies the height and tone of the performance, drawing attention to particular songs or moments that require some added visual spectacle.

The music for these ensemble numbers is high energy country and blues with hints of calypso and echoes of Cuban Salsa that make the full cast numbers impactful with strong, memorable songs. This includes the excellent title number Way Down Hadestown, a growly piece that has a down and dirty feel, while the impressive When the Chips are Down reveals the enduring slog of the ironworks and the hopelessness of existence for anyone who sold their soul. Equally enjoyable are the songs specifically for Hades, a Johnny Cash-like country king with an astonishing bass and domineering character that is reflected in the slow, almost spoken rhythm of his numbers.

If Hadestown has a fault, it is the weakness of the lead character and the generic boy-band pop he has been given to sing. Reeve Carney’s Orpheus is a rather lacklustre hero aimed at teenage girls raised on One Direction, but far from the manly hero needed to stand up to the God of the Underworld. There is a David versus Goliath element, but it is impossible to believe that this Orpheus was tough enough to travel from the surface, through the dark and dangerous routes to hell entirely unscathed, while his cool songwriter vibe seems mostly affected.

Likewise, his song is supposed to charm the entire world, and while part of the plot focuses on his development of the music – which he finishes just in time to take on Hades – when he finally comes to sing it in full, your first reaction is likely to be ‘is that it’. Epic II is an underwhelming tune that isn’t even the best song in the show never mind the most important track of all time, one that brings about peace, love and happiness, stopping a terrible monster in his tracks.

Eva Noblezada fares a little better as Eurydice, a much stronger sense of her own independence and a self-sufficiency that gives the character depth. More than a damsel in distress, Noblezada shows us a woman driven to an impossible deal by hunger and poverty, but not quite savvy enough to realise the consequences in that moment, but admittedly there is little chemistry with Carney’s Orpheus, giving their relationship a naivety that makes it hard to root for them as a couple.

The real interest is in the surrounding characters, particularly Amber Gray’s multi-layered Persephone and Patrick Page’s show-stealing Hades. Persephone becomes a highly sympathetic character, and Gray encourages us to appreciate her vibrancy, vivacity and mature reflection, a celebration of the autumn years of the woman who brings Summer with her. She is also a conduit for a comment on climate change, attributed here to her absence from the earth, while Gray uses her proximity to Hades and the breakdown of their marriage to bring a bitterness to their scenes, especially when his eye wanders to the younger Eurydice.

Page is a superb God of the Underworld who uses his strong and easy stage presence to emphasise the commanding and unforgiving nature of his character. With his pale snakeskin boots, there is something coldly reptilian about Hades as he stalks the stage demanding deference from anyone in his path, but Page retains a shred of humanity that makes his attachment to Persephone credible and allows the audience to think he could be reasoned with.

Hadestown is an overall for success for the National that uses the tricks of the Olivier’s stage to great effect and creating the right balance of spectacle and story to sustain its 2.5 hour run time. Its visual and musical innovation makes up for an underwhelming central character, which after a slow start brings the show to life and demonstrates what a great space this theatre can be with the right approach. With productions of this quality coming from America, our theatre exchange programme is looking pretty healthy, and with stars like Sally Field and Bill Pullman heading our way in 2019, there is plenty more to come.

Hadestown is at the National Theatre until 26 January and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Company – Gielgud Theatre

Company - Gielgud Theatre

The world may have changed considerably since the premiere of Company in 1970 but two things are very much the same; first the unceasing expectation that all women in their 20s and 30s are desperate for marriage and children, and the second is audiences’ enduring love of Stephen Sondheim. Unsurprisingly, the two have often gone hand-in-hand, and as you age the meaning of Sondheim’s work seems to deepen as real life and expectation, truth and illusion start to diverge. Never really out of fashion, this last year major theatres were given an extraordinary reminder of the power of Sondheim’s work when the National Theatre revived Follies with a generation-defining production filled with bittersweet regret and heart-breaking poignancy. Now Marianne Elliott brings Company to the West End with a production that may well change the musical forever.

Gender-swapped productions are fairly commonplace in theatre-land but, as with Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse the trick is to use what could be a gimmick to reveal new and valuable insights into well-worn productions. But few so completely transform their original that seeing it for the first time you would never know it hadn’t been written that way, and it is the highest compliment to Elliott and her team that this version of Company, that plays with gender and sexuality, is not even seamless, it’s just entirely right, as though Sondheim had a female lead and at least one same-sex couple in mind when he put pen to paper more than four decades ago.

Elliott’s triumphant production works so well because the character of Bobbie makes perfect sense in 2018, and while a male protagonist would be fine, arguably the pressures on men to settle down in their mid-30s would feel considerably less convincing than it did in more conservative times. Biologically and socially, however, women are endlessly questioned and judged for their choices and, in a world that still encourages young women to only value their accomplishments if they manage to attract a partner, a 35-year old female Bobbie happily clinging to her single life while unduly pressured by her married friends feels incredibly pertinent and frustratingly familiar. All kinds of relationships are now acceptable with anyone, but a woman who wants to be single and childless is still an alarming prospect for a society peddling a Noah’s Ark mindset.

Rosalie Craig’s Bobbie just makes perfect sense and in Elliott’s production we see how feeling that external pressure at 35 becomes a moment for reflection and assessment of her life so far. What follows is a non-linear collection of scenes, fragments of information about the surrounding social structure which our beleaguered heroine steps in and out of – notably Bobbie is the only character not to use the door into the various family homes but breaks the imaginary fourth wall to step directly out of one scenario into another.

Sondheim uses the same technique he applied to Follies, merging memories with the present day, but has a thematic rather than a directly narrative purpose, asking the audience to see through Bobbie’s eyes as she tries to determine the pros and cons of a settled relationship. Each of the couples in her friendship group are given their own song and identity that takes Bobbie through the very different approaches on offer – from the sweet and devoted rough and tumble of Sarah and Harry who finish each other’s sentences, correct anecdote details and find time to wrestle while singing The Little Things You do Together, to the equally devoted marriage of Jenny and David who have a slightly different power balance, tempering their fun with sober restraint and responsibility, while Susan and Peter find themselves drifting apart.

Two very different models deliver more pathos, first with caustic friend Joanne, married for the third time to a younger man and refusing to believe he feels any genuine love for her (which he does), and finally same-sex couple Paul and his boyfriend Jamie who debates heading down the aisle in one of the show’s finest sequences ‘I’m Not Getting Married Today’. Each pairing has a moment in the spotlight and a theme song which whirl around Bobbie, leaving her feeling awkward, sad and a million miles from wanting to settle down herself.

Crucial to the success of what could be a rather choppy experience is Marianne Elliott’s overarching vision for the show, which, working with set and costumes designed by Bunny Christie, unifies the disparate elements to provide a memorable visual spectacle and an intimate story of one woman at a crisis point. Borrowing a touch of the Angels in America aesthetic, we see Bobbie’s bright, free, pink neon-lit world clashing with the warm pastel tones reserved for the couples, pulling our protagonist in opposing directions – towards and away from the life she has full of socialising, casual relationships and freedom, contrasted with the American ideal of domestic perfection represented in the pale cosiness of her friends’ houses. Bobbie, dressed in brightest red, stands in the middle weighing-up her true self against social expectation.

There are some wonderfully comic scenes as our heroine tries to choose between her three boyfriends. Together they sing the 50s-esque You Could Drive a Person Crazy delivering a routine inspired by wholesome girl-groups of the era, a nice piece of gender-mixed choreography to emphasise their subordinate role in Bobbie’s life. Individually they get a mini-storyline as Bobbie sizes them up for commitment and each time coming-up short. There is plenty of comedy in these scenarios as nervy in-flight steward Andy (Richard Fleesman), geeky Theo (Matthew Seadon-Young) and self-loving rocker PJ (George Blagden) equally try to work out if Bobbie is the one for them.

Elliott’s direction smoothly charts a path between all of these varied narratives, moving interconnected neon-rimmed boxes together to create a continuous apartment, single rooms in multiple houses, a couple of subway carriages and even a whole terraced street. To see innovative stagecraft like this outside of somewhere like the National Theatre is really inspiring, and after the rather static Imperium here at the Gielgud over the summer, it is important to see that with a bit of imagination, even the oldest theatres can be transformed into vibrant, living spaces that serve the ends of the play rather than asking the work to adapt to the venue.

The performances are every bit as delightful and polished as the visual spectacle, with the cast creating a convincing set of well-worn friends who live vicariously through their singleton. Gathered for her birthday – a scene which punctuates the show – there is both a unity and in the individual scenes a love for Bobbie that goes hand-in-hand with the genuine concern for her future. But this is her show, and Rosalie Craig captures well the internal division in Bobbie’s mind, knowing that life she is living is the one for her, but nonetheless succumbing, at least momentarily, to the panic exerted by her friends.

Craig has a natural comic timing, often reacting with exasperation or awkwardness to the odd behaviour of those around her. A particularly entertaining scene in bed with Andy, sees Bobbie’s male friends perform Poor Baby / Tick Tock while she entices him to perform, all the while listening to the voices she thinks are in her head. The staging of the solos in a vast empty space are perhaps a little underwhelming, and while the point is that all the madness seeps away leaving Bobbie alone, they just lack dynamism. Craig performs them extremely well wringing full meaning from both Someone is Waiting and Marry Me a Little but visually they need a little help. The famous finale Being Alive is wonderful though and Craig builds to it through the show and within the song musing on the emotional shelter Bobbie has created around herself and where she goes from here.

Apart from a few well-timed lines, it’s not until quite near the end of the show that the audience gets to see Patti Lupone’s Joanne at close quarters in the song Ladies Who Lunch. It’s a lovely crowd-pleaser for fans of the eminent Broadway star, but Lupone isn’t in Company to rest on her laurels, bringing a poignancy that fleshes out a relatively small support role. The hard exterior and feigned exhaustion with society is clearly just armour in Lupone’s performance, protecting her from the deep vulnerability that comes from truly loving Larry (Ben Lewis) and fear of ever losing him.

Each of the couples is equally memorable; as expected Mel Giedroyc hits all the comic beats as Sarah while Gavin Spokes reveals a wonderful voice as he continues his West End success as Harry, after appearing as Major Ingram in Quiz earlier this year. Jennifer Saayeng’s sensible Jenny has one eye on adult responsibility keeping husband David (Richard Henders) from having too much fun, alongside Daisy Mawood’s Susan and Ashley Campbell’s Peter keeping up appearances as their marriage crumbles.

In a production that has shaken-up the way we look at established musical characters, it is Jonathan Bailey playing the gender-swapped Jamie that almost steals the entire show. Such a wonderful performer capable of great depth and sensitivity as the beautiful The York Realist at the Donmar showed earlier this year, Bailey’s big moment happens when his character gets cold feet on his wedding day. An absolute joy delivered at breath-taking speed reflecting Jamie’s desperate panic, and several attempts to hide in various unlikely kitchen crannies, Bailey deservedly receives a big ovation for a wonderful number that leaves you wanting more.

It may lack the desperate ache of Follies, but this version of Company may well change the musical forever – where it works for the story, gender and sexuality in classic musicals could become more fluid, allowing theatre-makers free reign to reimagine well-known shows for a new generation. Like Shakespeare, Sondheim deals with universal experiences and emotions, giving his work a timelessness and broad applicability that not only makes Elliott’s imaginative production entirely consistent with Sondheim’s original intent, it is also a great night out.

Company is at the Gielgud Theatre until 22 December and tickets start at £12.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Measure for Measure – Donmar Warehouse

Measure for Measure - Donmar Warehouse

As Josie Rourke enters her final months as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, schemes like Barclays Front Row and now Klaxon offering low-priced tickets to often sold-out shows, along with a focus on female-led theatre will be her legacy. Fitting then that part of her directorial swansong should be an inspired and experimental take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In a year of revelations about the abuse of power and sexual misconduct, the timing couldn’t be better for this intriguing tale of blackmail, morality and duty.

Gender-blind casting has becoming fairly standard in recent years, at the most basic level giving female actors the chance to play some of drama’s greatest roles, while also offering alternative perspectives on familiar scenarios. But one thing you never see is the same character simultaneously from the male and female perspective, so while a female Henry V might be intriguing, audiences cannot compare this instantly with an equivalent male performance and must wait until some other production comes along. Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure changes all that.

On the same night, either side of the interval, the roles of Angelo and Isabella are shared by Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell, while the production also divides its time between the early seventeenth century and 2018. There were various possibilities for this approach – the actors could play the roles on alternate nights as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller did with Frankenstein, or the swap could simply happen half way through the play. Instead, O’Rourke plumps for the most unusual option, slashing the text to a core 90 minutes and playing it through twice, that is exactly the same text once with Lowden as Angelo and Atwell as Isabella, and after the interval, playing it all again with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines (but called Isabella) and Lowden performing as Isabella (but called Angelo). It’s a risky strategy with a show that ultimate clocks in at around three hours, but it’s a daring endeavour that is richly rewarding.

The Duke of Vienna decides to take a holiday and leave his reluctant friend Angelo in charge, making him the city’s leading judge. A pure and moral region, Claudio is accused of fornication and the sober Angelo sentences him to death. Encouraged to plead for his life, Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice nun, duly visits Angelo who is instantly captivated by her, offering to spare her brother’s life in return for her virginity. Forced to choose between her body and her soul, can Angelo’s terrible power be bested?

The easy abuse of power and how it changes people’s behaviour is a core theme for Shakespeare, throwing the individual’s moral code into flux. Most often for murderous or greedy ends, characters pursue power to alter their own status, to win a higher position in government as happens in Hamlet and Macbeth or to jealously disrupt the purer life of someone else as in Othello. In Measure for Measure, power is wielded purely for sexual purposes, Angelo’s conquest of Isabella won’t later affect the materiality of his circumstances in any way, he propositions her as a temporary distraction, more an exercise in ego than a strategy for higher gain – themes that will resonant strongly with the events of the last year.

All of this comes across really strongly in the first half of the Donmar’s production, largely divested of its subplots, the audience is asked to focus sharply on the central theme of moral and bodily corruption in a show that asks big questions about trading one for the other. But Rourke ensures it’s not an open and shut case, she wants us to consider the opposing positions of Angelo and Isabella, to ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation and to think about the ways in which morality has changed in 400 years. Is Isabella a paragon, a saintly figure to be admired, or is her refusal to succumb to Angelo’s desires, and thereby assure her brother’s death, a cruel and stubborn act?

In this first section, the sympathies deliberately sway. Jack Lowden’s Angelo is an interesting proposition, a man seemingly driven by right and duty, applying the law as it stands but without compassion or clemency. His first encounter with Isabella clearly ignites a rapid and unexpected passion that he is unused to experiencing, and Lowden makes us believe he genuinely falls for her – it appears to mean far more to him than just having the upper hand.

But Lowden never lets us forget that how Angelo translates that emotion is monstrous, however genuine his feeling for Isabella, the scene in which he makes his intentions clear is deeply uncomfortable. As he looms in on her, riven with lust, she comprehends his purpose exactly, and Atwell is superb in relaying the powerlessness and fear that Isabella feels in that moment, frozen and shaking with tears that becomes a striking reminder that Angelo’s unrequited love for her can never excuse his invasive manipulation of her body and mind.

As the story is resolved the production flashes forward to 2018 and replays the first scene again, this time with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines but named as Isabella. After the interval, the play resumes from the condemnation of Claudio, and Atwell’s approach is slightly different to Lowden’s – although both are equally valid and fascinating creations. She makes the character more beguiling, more openly lustful and confident, while no less deceptively calculating. This Isabella has greater self-assurance than the equivalent Angelo in Act One, who seemed a cold man remote from the world and almost awoken by his passion. Instead, Atwell plays her as a sharp-minded woman seizing on a tasty opportunity that suddenly presents itself, worldly and entitled.

Her scenes with Lowden now are quite different, without the physical height and strength to overcome him, she manoeuvres him into position and waits to pounce. Openly admiring him, Atwell has a way of tilting her head to peer at Angelo (reading as Isabella), emphasising her social if not muscular dominance over him. Instead of the devout virgin of 1604, Lowden gives us a former bad boy who has found redemption at a Christian retreat and Isabella’s pursuit of him tests his resolve – although, it is more awkward than uncomfortable to watch him extricate himself from the proposition scene, perhaps because he seems more acquainted with the world and better able to handle himself than the trapped young woman of the original.

It may seem a chore to watch the same show through twice and you do need a bit of resolve to stick with it, but the outcome is worth the investment. There are two very interesting things happening in this finely honed and balanced production; first one way to read the approach is that the Isabella and Angelo of the second half are the direct consequence of the Isabella and Angelo of the first. Forget the fact they swap lines and imagine what actually happened to the characters at the end of Shakespeare’s original play, who did they become in the future?

Here Rourke asks us to consider, that although Isabella was young, innocent and seemingly incorruptible in terms of her chastity, did having the power of life and death over another man (even for the right reasons) ultimately corrupt her? Did close exposure to that male world of politics and power create a future scenario in which the one-time victim becomes the perpetrator? Atwell certainly hints that the fiery certainty of Isabella in Act One could be the same woman in Act Two only older and more experienced. Her righteousness after the interval seems to suggest the dying embers of an original morality now corrupted by authority.

Likewise, it is entirely conceivable that the dastardly Angelo has spent the intervening years seeking atonement for his sins, arriving at the retreat as a form of therapy to correct his poor behaviour. Like Atwell, Lowden makes this interpretation entirely credible drawing on his portrait of initial sobriety as Act One Angelo to inform and make sense of his Act Two desire to seek religious penance for his earlier behaviour. His reaction to Isabella’s proposition is then deepened by the idea that he now understands the damaging effect of his original behaviour, hence the determination not to succumb. So the question really becomes – are Angelo and Isabella essentially two sides of the same coin, an eternal loop of corruption and reclamation?

Secondly, are we also being asked to question our own judgement about the differences between the two scenarios? Morally they are inexcusably the same, a more powerful individual manipulating a weaker one is unquestionably wrong, but watching it, the production is also testing our own conscience and whether we feel that a gender-swapped twenty-first century Isabella propositioning Angelo is less troubling that the seventeenth-century original. Does society still innately believe that a woman, lacking in physical strength, cannot cajole a man into sex in the same way? Part of that is in the equivalent performances in which Lowden’s cold Angelo is more repellent than Atwell’s slightly coquettish and personable Isabella, but this Measure for Measure asks tough questions – are we really as liberal as we’d like to think? Using power to manipulate another person should be the same regardless of gender but it is intriguing how the alternative perspective of the second half plays with our prejudices on this issue.

Cynically, a double dose of Measure for Measure shouldn’t work, but this re-gendered combination is a gamble that pays off, sending you home with plenty to think about for days afterwards. Peter McKintosh’s simple set, combined with Howard Harrison’s interesting lighting design easily evokes two eras, allowing the power of the lower-lit traditional section to speak for itself uncluttered by scenery, while adding a livelier feel for 2018. The overall concept adds some knowing touches to the modern era with conversations transposed to phone calls and the local prostitutes given an Eastern European background.

Among the supporting cast, Nicholas Burns adds a creepy touch as the helpful undercover Duke with an agenda of his own. His pursuit of Isabella is as disturbing as Angelo’s showing that predators may come disguised as white knights, while Burns becomes more physical in his attempt to seduce Angelo in 2018 which contrasts well with Isabella’s more implicit approach. Matt Bardock is equally notable as the rascally Lucio, while Sule Rimi gives the imprisoned Claudio plenty of injured resentment at his sister / brother’s refusal to help.

As Josie Rourke steps down from the Donmar, this show is one to remember for all the right reasons. In a year of very strong Shakespeare interpretations – Julius Caesar, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra especially – this Measure for Measure has taken the biggest gamble of them all and won. With two terrific performers in Atwell and Lowden each giving two absorbing performances, it is an evening that opens your eyes to how differently Shakespeare’s text can be interpreted and how changing gender can give theatre an added political power.

Measure for Measure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 November. Tickets are sold-out but extra seats will available via Klaxon every Monday and day seats at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Sketching – Wilton’s Music Hall

Sketching - Wilton's Music Hall

The anthology series has had a renaissance on television with shows like Black Mirror and Inside No 9 proving that contained storytelling can be dramatically satisfying and compulsive viewing. In theatre it is far less common, although Jamie Lloyd’s successful and energised Pinter at the Pinter season is taking a compendium approach to presenting multiple one act plays and monologues across successive evenings. James Graham’s new show Sketching, which has its press night at Wilton’s Music Hall tomorrow, attempts a purer form of anthology, blending stories from eight competition winners to co-create a patchwork of London life.

Graham ran an open search for writers, specifically targeting under-represented voices from around the UK to work with him on a multi-perspective show that uses Sketches by Boz – one of Charles Dickens’s earliest works – as its inspiration. Sketching is a theatrical experiment designed to weave together the individual stories of different London traditions, problems and people to celebrate the diversity and history of our capital, while commenting on a sense of place and identity for those drawn to its flame.

Dickens’s substantial tome is an indispensable guide to nineteenth-century London, and while his various observations and creations exist largely in isolation, together Dickens creates a broad sense of the bustle and scale of the city while delving deeply into the quirky co-existence of all kinds of life within its streets, taking the reader from the humorous to the ponderous and despondent within a few pages. More recently novelists including John Lanchester in Capital and Sebastian Faulks in A Week in December have utilised the anthology approach but deliberately drawn the strands together to create a narrative drive that allows separate characters to cross paths in significant ways. Sketching falls somewhere between the two.

Much has been made of the “writers’ room” approach that Sketching has adopted from television where large multi-episode dramas and soaps use a team of writers to essentially churn out plenty of storylines while collectively retaining an eye for consistencies of character and place. Here, competition winners Aaron Douglas, Adam Hughes, Alan Gordon, Chloe Mi Lin Ewart, Ella Langley, Himanshu Ojha, Naomi Westerman and Sumerah Srivastav have worked alongside Graham to produce the 12 attributable stories listed in the programme.

In many ways Sketching is a vast undertaking, attempting to marry nine individual voices in a single two-hour show, created in less than 12 weeks, with the group only meeting for the first time at the launch event in early July. Perhaps expectedly with relatively little time to write, hone, cast and rehearse, the quality of the overall piece is rather variable and while some stories are consistently tied together, others float loosely around the edge of a show that hasn’t quite decided if it wants to be a series of exploratory “sketches” or a fully integrated drama. Graham constructs a play better than almost anyone, and Sketching’s episodic frame feels like the right approach, scattering scenes from several of the core strands across the production to drive the drama. His own story ‘Peter Piper has a Plan’ is the backbone of the show, uniting some of the disparate elements while adding a small sense of jeopardy to proceedings.

Newly released from prison, Peter Piper is the criminal mastermind behind a dastardly plan to steal the internet and plunge the city into chaos. Travelling around London, Piper incites a number of crucial strikes that lead to his ultimate, and rather surprising, objective. Its initial Tower of London location is reminiscent of Moriarty’s equally crazed bid for power in season two of Sherlock, yet, squeezed for time, the consequences rather fizzle out. Graham’s solid narrative arc allows Peter to interact with a number of other stories and London traditions, which in Samuel James’s sinister performance creates some genuine audience investment. Given more time, this has the potential to be a fascinating study of the multivariant effects of destruction that Peter single-handedly manufactures.

Of the stories attributed to the Writers’ Room, only four have an identifiable stake in show. The strongest comes from Alan Gordon who makes his professional debut with ‘The Emancipation of Shona Bell-e’ about a Scottish Drag Queen who finds herself trapped in a London flat with Kevin who refuses to go outside. Living solely through her fans on the internet, the tension rises between them as cabin fever sets in. It doesn’t connect to the main Peter Piper story, but with another notable and exuberant performance from Samuel James as Shona, supported by Sean Michael Verey’s quietly troubled Kevin, this sensitive piece has much to say about the loneliness of London and the pressure to hide your true self to fit in.

But time prevents a few of the stories from reaching their full potential. Himanshu Ojha’s ‘The Hand of Hozan’ is another pillar of the show with an intriguing twist as a probationary police officer works with a sewage worker to uncover the origins of a mysterious severed hand, using flashbacks to replay the significant moments of Hozan’s life.  Sumerah Srivastav’s ‘Mo’s Second Hand Shop’ has a very different central character with lots of possibilities but is so briefly shown in the first half that the major reveal in Act Two feels too sudden and underdeveloped, despite an eleventh hour tie-in with Ojha’s story.

Naomi Westerman’s ‘The Conceptual Artist’ concerns a homeless lesbian couple who take over an empty mansion in Kensington only for one of them to be mistaken for an artist. Westerman comments on the vapid nature of fame, greed and the nonsense of London housing but tonally feels divorced from the rest of the show. A promising sequence about a Billingsgate fishmonger (Samuel James again) who aptly comments that the financial district is built on invisible stock unlike his business that has tangible products to sell has considerable scope for development, with a rather pointed statement to make about the nature and skewed importance of the banking industry to London’s sustainability. Yet the remaining Writers’ Room pieces are difficult to identify.

It’s notable, and even curious, that of the 12 stories listed in the programme four of the longest pieces that connect the show are by Graham, and it’s not at all clear if this is intentional. Alongside the central Peter Piper strand, Graham also contributes ‘The Widow and the Songbird’ about a rare nightingale encounter which has the potential to be quite poignant, ‘A Rebellion in Theatreland’ focusing on mutinous stage door keepers which deserves expansion, and the weak ‘Katie and Tom Try to Move On’, an over-wordy recurring story which, despite a clever ending, fails to convince as a long-parted couple agonise over their feelings for one another, poorly performed by Verey and Sophie Wu. As a test case for collective approaches to theatre writing that create opportunity for diversity Sketching is clearly an important step forward, and while many of the stories are interesting, at times the show feels as though it has been patched-up or rescued by its senior writer.

Sketching is a solid evening, but lacking polish it never quite moves beyond a series of possibilities. It entertains in part, and genuinely engages in others, yet its multi-writer format pulls its structure in different directions; on the one hand it actively overlaps narratives and characters to create a coherent drama but also takes the Dicken’s approach with several sketches that exist in isolation, making for a slightly unsatisfactory and inconsistent whole. That variation extends to the show’s presentation as narrators actively link passages together, speaking directly to the audience, while alternatively scenes and Dicken’s quotes bleed into one another without any external commentary. It’s never clear if we are being guided to particular experiences of London to make a specific point, or whether snatches of life are presented as they exist for the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Ellan Parry’s simple design allows the actors to swiftly merge into dozens of characters with just a change of hat or coat, and the minimal approach to staging helps us to conjure a variety of locations in an instant. Yet Parry has added a high rigged table to connect the upper and lower parts of the Wilton stage. Much of the action takes place on this raised and titled platform that gives a good view from the circle but results in neck ache for the front stalls – what this odd structure is meant to represent or facilitate is less clear. Thankfully, Daniel Denton’s beautiful video projections reinforce the title with a series of black and white sketches inspired by mid-century French styles, providing a simple but meaningful backdrop of locations, maps and animation that add a touch of magic to the overall effect.

Sketching is certainly an interesting test case and the fact it exists at all is probably more important than its content. Along with Graham’s passionate advocation of arts education and desire to offer the same mentoring support he received as a young writer, whether Sketching is a good play is secondary to its importance as a political statement about access for new and diverse voices. There are some really strong ideas here and a lot of talent among the Writers’ Room but space to develop is lacking in a show that needs to include too much. The consequence of running a competition means each ‘winner’ must be heard and the weaker ideas cannot be jettisoned to create space for the stronger to thrive.

That’s not to say that collective approaches to theatre writing cannot be successful, and indeed elements of Sketching prove they can be, but the overall outcome needs to be more streamlined, limiting the focus to five or six stronger stories co-written by the group, Alternatively an entirely anthological approach could work with a tighter theme; London is a big sprawling city heaving with stories, but the breadth of the responses to that makes it harder to weave into a single, consistent and meaningful evening of theatre.

Sketching is very much a work in progress, both in the career development of the collective writers as a stepping stone to the demands and expectations of professional theatre, and in the construction and refinement of new modes of creating. Given more time and focus, a Writers’ Room model would be an interesting one to replicate, changing the nature of individualist theatre writing. Sketching is a show that doesn’t feel quite ready for its audience, but it is an important marker for the sector, a chance to think more broadly and even radically about routes to access, opportunity and perspective that can open the door to new voices.

Sketching is at Wilton’s Music Hall until 28 October with tickets from £9-£33. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


%d bloggers like this: