Category Archives: Shakespeare

Twelfth Night – National Theatre

twelfth-night-national-theatre

The National Theatre had a pretty impressive year in 2016 resuming its position as one of London’s most consistent and forward-thinking theatres, mixing reimagined classics with new writing. Under Rufus Norris’s artistic directorship its output has felt fresh, diverse and above all innovative, with Annie Baker’s The Flick, Robert Icke’s cinematic The Red Barn and Ivo van Hove’s eviscerating take on Hedda Gabler standing out in a year of hits. And the future is already full of promise with tickets to the revival of Angels in America selling like a rock concert, and new works like Consent to come in 2017, not to mention a 2018 announcement of Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, as well as apparently Ralph Fiennes in Anthony and Cleopatra (announced a year ago but no further details), it’s fair to say you now go to the National expecting to be wowed.

But first up for 2017 is a new production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night a perennial Christmas favourite that has nothing to do with the festive season, hence a February opening.  It is clear from the promotional photography that this tale of disguise and unrequited love will largely focus on its comedy characters with Tamsin Greig taking the starring role as the re-gendered Malvolia. And the recasting allows the company to add freshness to an often performed play by playing with notions of sexuality – ideas hinted at in Shakespeare’s text through the frisson between Orsino and Viola when she is disguised as Cesario.

So the plot is an intricate one, starting with a shipwreck that parts twins Viola and Sebastian who both arrive in Illyria thinking the other had perished. Disguised as a boy called Cesario, Viola enters the employ of Duke Orsino and falls in love with him, but Orsino is in love with local noblewoman Olivia, who has foresworn all men. Orsino sends Cesario as messenger but Olivia falls in love with him, not realising its Viola in disguise. Running in parallel, Olivia’s drunken relative Sir Toby Belch and her servants decide to teach the arrogant steward Malvolia a lesson by letting her think Olivia loves her and orchestrate Malvolia’s public humiliation. People are disguised, hearts ache, wires are crossed and hilarity ensues, but Sebastian is still on the island and soon becomes involved in the mix-ups.

The National’s production, which has its press night on Wednesday, is primarily focused on the comedy aspects of the tale which downplays the central romantic stories and partially side-lines the play’s main character Viola. Director Simon Godwin who previously oversaw the brilliantly riotously The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National in 2015 which was a perfectly pitched farce, brings that knowledge to bear on this production of Twelfth Night helping his fine cast to find the levity in Shakespeare’s text while adding plenty of humorous physical and visual comedy touches. The result hasn’t yet meshed into a finely tuned show but, only a few performances in, there are a series of nicely realised comic scenarios which should link more seamlessly as the cast settle into the rhythm.

Aside from the cast, the real star of this version is the ever inventive Soutra Gilmour’s rotating fold-out pyramid set which simply transports the players to various settings relatively smoothly, while offering a slightly dreamlike feel. It starts as the bow of Viola and Sebastian’s ship steered into the rocks that set the story on its way, before triangular segments fold out into Olivia’s glass panelled villa, bricked street scenes, Olivia’s garden and even a gay bar with singing drag Queen – crooning Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. There’s also a large staircase leading to the top which gives the actors something to run around on but also a place to overhear or spy on the action. There were a couple of sticky moments when bits of the set malfunctioned forcing the actor’s to improvise, and the various flaps need to be walked into place by visible technicians, but Gilmour’s 30s meets 70s meets modern interpretation is fascinating, and she has amassed an eclectic body of work.

Gender-swapping within the cast is seamlessly done and makes perfect sense in the context of Godwin’s production. Leading them is Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia who initially puts you in mind of Shakespeare’s other great verbose and fussy attendant, Polonius from Hamlet. Grieg’s first appearance is as a severe and dark presence, clean black bob, and starkly dressed in plain shirt and culottes. The overall appearance is of an ogerish governess, humourless and unimpressed with those around her but certain that her own thoughts and actions are perfect behaviour. That all changes brilliantly on receipt of the faked letter from Olivia and the big reveal of Malvolia in the yellow stockings in part two, which has to be seen rather than spoiled, is a brilliantly timed piece of comedy which Greig relishes superbly. It’s a fun and wide-ranging performance that pins the show together really well.

Equally entertaining is Phoebe Fox’s almost entirely comic Olivia whose over-eager declarations of love and single-minded pursuit of Cesario are a real highlight. Fox brings initial restraint to Olivia, who is in mourning for her recently deceased father and brother, and is clearly a determined, strong young woman who bats away Orsino’s attentions and is admirably unwavering. Yet with the arrival of Cesario Fox utilises these character traits to great effect in trying to capture the object of her affection, as well as making the most of any opportunity to show a giggly or more suggestive aspect of the character.

Completing the comic set is the excellent Tim McMullen as Sir Toby Belch, Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Augecheek, Doon Mackichan as a gender-swapped fool Feste and Niki Wardley as Maria Olivia’s chambermaid who masterminds the plan against Malvolia. It’s a nicely delineated group but together love revelry and drive much of the comedy forward, with McMullen –sartorially channelling Laurence Llewelyn Bowen – and Wardley in particularly making an excellent team as the partying nobleman and the cheeky maid who takes control of him.

The lovers do get pretty short shrift in this version of the play and Orsino’s appearances which bookend the play make it difficult to understand how quickly he transfers his affection from Olivia to Viola. Oliver Chris’s Orsino is a bit of a playboy at the start, driving his sports car on stage to overtly attract Olivia with generic flowers but he genuinely seems devoted as he later mopes through a party-scene. With the emphasis on the comic, we get less chance to see the relationship with Cesario / Viola tip over into something more romantic.

Tamara Lawrance’s Viola is satisfyingly tomboyish making her male disguise convincing and, a difficult thing in modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays, almost believable. And while she hasn’t quite captured the depth of the romance, it’s still early days and that will come. Finally Daniel Ezra is an excellent Sebastian, suitably perplexed by the mistaken identity dramas and with plenty of swagger to give the fight scenes credibility. But there is a hint at Sebastian’s homosexuality in scenes with ship’s captain Antonio and at the gay bar which aren’t followed though when he becomes embroiled in the story with Olivia.

It’s still early in the run and with a couple of previews left before press night there is time to smooth the flow and link more consistently between the high comic moments and the rest of the play which will make its long three hour run time skip more quickly. There are lots of lovely comic performances which carry it along very nicely and, Gilmour’s spectacular set aside, while the show may not have the wow of recent National Theatre productions or build to the farcical pitch it aspires to, this version of Twelfth Night is an entertaining and well-staged evening with plenty of fun moments that keep the audience laughing.

Twelfth Night is at The National Theatre until 13 May and tickets start at £15.  It will be broadcast live to cinemas on 6 April, and is also part of the Friday Rush scheme, offering tickets for the following week at £20 – available from 1pm on Fridays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Review of the Year and What to See in 2017

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Very few of us will be sorry to see the back of 2016, politically and socially it’s been a tough year all round. But it hasn’t been all bad with London’s cultural output thriving in uncertain times and at the start of 2016 there was much to anticipate. While 2015 theatre was all about five big male performance, 2016 was a time for some of our leading female actors to take to the stage with powerful productions of The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre with Helen McCrory on devastating form as Rattigan’s desperate heroine, while The Young Vic’s Yerma cemented Billie Piper’s growing status as a very fine stage performer, and closing the year, The National’s innovative Hedda Gabler with a brutally savage turn from Ruth Wilson as the suffocated society wife.

Some other good but not perfect productions also heralded some noteworthy for roles for Gemma Chang in Jamie Lloyd’s exciting take on Pinter’s The Homecoming, for Juliette Stevenson and Lia Williams in Mary Stuart (review to follow next week), Sharon D Clarke in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Amber Riley in Dreamgirls. Not to be outdone notable male performances including Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder which was one of his finest ever stage roles, shamefully overlooked by the Olivier committee, as well as the lead in a notable Richard III at the Almeida. Later in the year Kenneth Branagh defied comparisons to deliver a moving and powerful interpretation of The Entertainer while Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith found new depth in The Dresser, not forgetting Kit Harrington cavorting about in his pants and making a decent job of the leading role in Jamie Lloyd’s controversial but resonant Faustus. But my favourite was Mark Strong’s incredible performance in The Red Barn which earned a first professional five-star review from me.

For theatre 2017 is already promising a host of hotly anticipated male roles and having opened 2016 with another chance to see his magnificent Richard II at the Barbican, David Tennant returns to the Wyndhams stage in March for Patrick Marber’s contemporary adaptation of Don Juan in Soho which promises a great deal. Also in March Daniel Radcliffe returns to London in an Old Vic production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead while in April star-director Ivo van Hove’s version of Obsession opens at the Barbican with film-star Jude Law. The National also revives its production of Angels in America with Russell Tovey which will be one of the big openers in 2017.  But the show to watch next year is a hotly anticipated version of Hamlet at the Almeida which opens in late February staring Andrew Scott, Juliet Stevenson, Jessica Brown Findlay and rising star Luke Thompson. Comparisons with Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet are inevitable but the Almeida is a much smaller space and Robert Icke’s vision may yet surprise us.

Art and exhibitions have noted a major change in presentation and style since the 2015 Alexander McQueen show which really altered the way items are presented. Utilising the success of this the V&A called on their design experience to present a lively examination of 60s popular and political culture in Records and Rebels which you can still see a little while longer. In a similar vein Vogue celebrated its 100th birthday with an excellent exhibition of its fashion photography which emphasised its role in reflecting the changing world around the magazine, while the Barbicans show about The Vulgar collected some excellent exhibits but misused them in over-intellectualised structure. And Somerset House celebrated fan-art inspired by the weird and wonderful world of Kubrick films.

From July the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme offered two of London’s most successful shows focused on very different aspects of conflict. The Science Museum’s Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care was an eye-opening and well researched examination of a little known aspect of the First Wold War, while the Imperial War Museum comes very close to show of the year with its excellent Real to Reel exhibition on war movies. That accolade actually goes to the Royal Academy for its Painting the Modern Garden show which collated so many beautiful paintings that wandering from crowded room to crowded room was never less than a joy.

Looking ahead and the headline show for 2017 is the Tate’s David Hockney retrospective from February which is set to unite his UK and US work for the first time. After a stunning 2012 show at the Royal Academy, a proper examination of Hockney’s work is long overdue and this is sure to be a big hit for Tate Britain after their disappointing Paul Nash and Empire shows. This will be followed by a show on the impressionists in London from November.

Meanwhile other American art comes into focus with big shows on post-1930s art at the Royal Academy from February and Pop Art and the American Dream at the British Museum from March. In February Kensington Palace opens a guaranteed money-spinning crowd-pleaser with a showcase of Princess Diana’s dresses set to run for two years, while at the tail end of next year the Queen’s Gallery launches its examination of Charles II’s art.

London’s 2016 Film Festival was once again lived up to anticipation and seems to be going from strength to strength. As well as the Amy Adams double bill of linguistic sci-fi adventure Arrival and Tom Ford’s stylishly dark morality tale Nocturnal Animals which have already opened in the UK as well as Andrea Arnold’s superb American Honey, the Film Festival also showcased a number of significant films due to open here in the early part of 2017. Best among and them already earning countless award nominations is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land which is in cinemas from 13 January and is an exceptional clash of the classic Hollywood musical and modern grittier experiences of trying to make it in LA. It is beautifully realised and its stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, have never been better.

Out in the same week is Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (review to follow shortly), a sensitive portrayal of grief and guilt with its stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams certain to dominate the acting honours in February. Although full release dates are not yet announced theatre director Benedict Andrews’s adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, now retitled Una and starring Rooney Mara deals with the difficult issue of abuse and its consequences. Although the film’s approach does undermine its purpose to a degree it will create talking points on release, and a review will follow when that date is announced. Finally Adam Smith’s first film Trespass Against Us, starring Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender is scheduled for 3 March, with both playing members of a Gloucestershire traveller community, replete with local accents, who account for much of the local crime rate. Premiering at the Film Festival, it offers some impressive low-budget car chases and great black comedy moments, as well as fine performances from its top-notch cast.

So as we swiftly kick 2016 away it may not have been a great year but it has offered a number of cultural highs. With plenty of potentially excellent theatre, exhibitions and films in the works, there’s much to look forward to in the year ahead.

Reviews are posted every Monday at 12.30pm.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Cymbeline – RSC at the Barbican

cymbeline-royal-shakespeare-company

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s most derided plays, coming quite late in his career (1609) and offering a top-heavy mish-mash of subplots that are never satisfactorily resolved. In some ways it’s like a greatest hits album of his most recognisable plots and techniques cherry-picked from his earlier successes, but thrown together in a bag and shaken about to form another story entirely, one that unfortunately is far less than the sum of its parts.

There’s some star-crossed lovers right out of Romeo and Juliet (1594-5), a maligned female reputation which questions her virtue like Much Ado About Nothing (1598-9), a warrior King who struggles to trust his children (King Lear, 1605-6), some lost siblings and a chance for some female-to-male disguise like Twelfth Night (1599-1600) and people escaping into the magical woods where they meet some common folk as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-6). By the time he wrote Cymbeline, Shakespeare clearly knew what his audience enjoyed but the jumbling-up of stories with very little poetry is one of his more lacklustre and dense efforts.

Although rarely performed, London has welcomed two major productions in a matter of months; The Globe’s modern reinterpretation which has set the seal on Emma Rice’s tenure as Artistic Director, and the RSC dystopian production which arrived in London at the end of October for a two month run and recasts the titular King as a Queen. Cymbeline is the not-so-straightforward story of an ancient British princess called Innogen who has married her lover Posthumus against the wishes of her mother Cymbeline who then banishes Posthumus to Rome. Here, he enters into a bet with Roman, Iachimo ,who tricks him into believing Innogen has betrayed him.

Meanwhile, Cymbeline is guarding the throne from internal plotters while facing a possible Roman invasion. Meanwhile out in the woods, her two lost children are being raised by a woodsman unaware of their royal status. As Innogen is accused by her husband, she decides to dress as a man and sets off in search him, leaving the three sets of characters to mix at a volatile time for Britain.

The RSC’s production is a pretty mixed affair and in many ways it makes a fairly decent job of envisaging what is a poorly constructed play with relatively little character depth. It starts off really well and the first half rattles along quite efficiently and with a decent amount of tension as the drama of Iachimo’s attempts to upset Innogen’s marriage creates plenty of intrigue and villainy. If you’ve seen enough of the Shakespeare plays listed above then you’ll pretty much know where all of this is going but its credit to Melly Still’s direction that you remain engaged and entertained nonetheless.

Much of this is due to Oliver Johnstone’s performance as Iachimo who manages to avoid becoming a finger-drumming panto villain as he develops and executes his plan to smear Innogen’s reputation. When he meets Posthumus in Rome he is every bit the swarve Italian, impeccably dressed and coiffured, and casually bantering with his attendants. Confident he can seduce Innogen before he meets her, he is pleasantly surprised to find her beautiful but also intellectually his equal, and you sense in Johnstone’s performance that Iachimo begins to fall for her, eager to fulfil the bet and keep her for himself. It adds unusual depth to the scenes between them and like Kinnear’s Iago at the National a few years back you might will him to succeed.

One reason for this is the less successful relationship between Innogen and Posthumus upon which much of the play hinges, and here the company fail to really sell this at the start so the audience never quite believes in their passion for one another. Hiran Abeysekera’s Posthumus is an underwhelming presence, never seemingly a physical or intellectual match for Bethan Cullinane’s Innogen, and so easily led during his exile that it’s difficult for an audience to generate any sympathy for the lovers which fatally undermines the dynamic and drive of the play.

By contrast Cullinane makes for a modern and intriguing heroine, determinedly knowing her own mind and, despite being heir, she is happy to go against her parent’s wishes. The teasing relationship Cullinane’s Innogen develops with Johnstone has considerably more depth than the flatter romance with her husband which adds considerably to the tension in the attempted seduction scene giving it a ‘will they, won’t they’ momentum. But throughout Cullinane balances the emotional introspection as Innogen contemplates life without her lover, with the anger and frustration created by being wrongly accused.

Among the rest of the cast there is a mixture of ability, ranging from those who speak the verse very naturally to those who struggle to find its rhythm, and none of this is helped by the characterisation which often lacks depth – although this is Shakespeare’s own fault. And there are some problems with projection which make it difficult to hear even at the back of the stalls so it’s probably considerably worse in the balcony.

To say it’s difficult to care is an understatement, and even a fair amount of gender-switching which works perfectly well, isn’t used to any particularly effect. Gillian Bevan makes a good fist as warrior queen Cymbeline but spends most of the production stomping around in Ugg boots and a dressing gown, while her second husband, the evil Duke, is given a nice platform by James Clyde but somehow the machinations to overthrow the monarch are never clearly articulated in this production, especially in the first half where the romance takes precedence.

Even Anna Fleischle’s visuals are a little inconsistent which adds to the confusion; The British court seems somewhere between a post-revolution dystopia and a steampunk fantasy world. The walls are covered in graffiti and the place looks quite beaten up, and the costumes suggest a court fallen from its previous glory, including a ragged denim outfit worn by Innogen whose ruffles and puffs are tattered and torn, while the Queen struts around in her nightie. Simultaneous scenes in the woods borrow from the Lost Boys while Rome is firmly set in the 1980s with a Miami Vice look that celebrates slicked back hair and blazers.

It’s actually all a bit confused which makes it much harder to place, raising considerably more questions than it answers – why is Britain in a post-holocaust state and not Rome, what possible major even could have decimated one country without affecting a reasonably near neighbour? It would be perfectly sensible if Britain was pre-civilisation and Rome was on its way as a conqueror but it’s clearly meant to be after some kind of war-like disaster so the reason for this difference is a little vague.

And towards the end as much of the action decamps to the forest the whole things gets a bit Peter Pan with vine trails and hideaways that undermine the danger of a fragile community fending off attempted regicide and succession issues, and starts to feel more like a cheery frolic as families are reunited and political issues resolved. Towards the end, after nearly 3½ hours the whole thing starts to feel very laboured as all the threats dry up and the tension created by Iachimo’s villainous plans splutters to a weak conclusion.

Again much of this is Shakespeare’s fault because Cymbeline is a hotchpotch of half realised plots and poorly delineated characters. Initially the RSC’s production manages to paper over some of the cracks with a show that starts strong, with some very good performances that add layers to the characters, as well as an intriguing vision of a society in decline. Yet, this production feels sluggish and unconvincing in the second half as the plot becomes rather flabby and the tone shifts from political intrigue to fantasy adventure romp which all feels rather thinly conceived. A decent effort by the RSC but it’s not going to salvage Cymbeline’s reputation as a play or have you hurrying to see the play again in the future.

Cymbeline is at the Barbican until 17th December. Tickets start at £10 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  


The Dresser – Duke of York’s Theatre

The Dresser - Duke of York's Theatre

Everyone loves a bit of backstage drama and the West End has frequently welcomed successful runs of a number of ‘behind-the-scenes’ comedies – in the last few years alone there have been versions of Noises Off, The Play That Goes Wrong franchise and Harlequinade. But while these shows mock the silliness of actors and play-up the slapstick humour of putting on a play, there is also a darker more tragic side to an endless life on the road, to actors forcing themselves to play the same role night after night, and the difficulties of company hierarchy, which Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play The Dresser illuminates. In order to give an exemplary and memorable onstage performance do the very best actors need to suffer off-stage? And if they do, are there enough people to make sure they go on in time?

Currently playing at The Duke of York’s Theatre after a brief national tour, Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott take on the leading roles in Harwood’s much-loved tale. It’s an hour before a performance of King Lear and veteran actor “Sir” is missing while his dresser Norman paces anxiously around the tiny dressing room, covering for his famous master. After a beleaguered tour, the icy stage manager decides to cancel the show, but just in time Sir arrives, drunk and emotional. With 30 minutes till curtain up Norman not only has to get his star dressed but deal with his histrionics while reminding him what play he’s doing. Will Sir make it to the stage and even if he does can he get through the performance without giving himself away.

Harwood’s play is largely a two-hander and so much then rests on the chemistry between the leads. A recent acclaimed televised version united Ian McKellen (as Norman) with Anthony Hopkins (as Sir), and while reading any critical reviews of this latest version and you’ll see mention of the 1983 film with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney which many believed definitive. But nothing in theatre is ever really definitive, and this new version, directed by Sean Foley brings its own interpretation and flavour to the play, while evoking the freedom and defiance of the wartime generation.

In particular the dual relationship with celebrity is one that continues to fascinate us, embodied in The Dresser by the character of Norman who both loves the proximity to greatness that his job affords him, a role of which he is fiercely protective, while simultaneously loathing aspects of the man he has devoted his life to. What is interesting about Shearsmith’s performance is how effectively we see beneath Norman’s obsequious surface to the deeply ingrained bitterness below, yet he continues to value and covet the private access he has to Sir. There is considerable complexity here as Shearsmith presents a man who in a sense has sacrificed his own life and individualism to devoted service, but remains fully cognizant of his master’s flaws and resentful not just of others trying to come between them, but of the lack of gratitude from his employer.

One the most fascinating aspects of this play is seeing these undercurrents slowly emerge, and while the role of Norman is less outwardly showy than Sir, it is, in some ways, trickier to elucidate this bundle of repression, bile and, at times, personal despair. But Norman is far more than a pseudo-butler and Shearsmith plays-up his intelligence and shrewdness in keeping the angry theatre company at bay while he gets Sir stage-ready, as well as having an equally detailed knowledge of Shakespeare plays which comes in handy when frequently correcting his star’s mistakes. Although we clearly see that Norman is superior to his master, we also have to believe that he has invested enough in the relationship to have stayed for decades, and Shearsmith navigates that line very successfully.

By contrast, the role of Sir requires considerably more ebullience, and a kind of entitled indulgence for his behaviour. In Ken Stott’s performance, the audience sees a man who is entirely self-involved and, while incapacitated by drink and its consequences for much of the early part of the play, has little regard for those relying on him to pull it together and put on a show. His emotions seem to teeter on the brink of anger and complete collapse which Stott makes both fascinating and almost sympathetic. In Stott’s take on the character we see Sir continually battling his physical incapacity – brought about by age, drink and exhaustion –becoming a metaphorical tug-of-war between his mind and his body.

Here too we see that the effect of one day of over-imbibing reflects a lifetime of issues that culminate in this mini-breakdown, showing us the tougher side of an artistic life – endless nights on the road, random rooms and a series of failed relationships, alongside the pressure and expectation for a more successful actor that they will deliver a mind-blowing performance every night for the expectant paying audience. Stott’s Sir is certainly petulant and frustrating to manage, arrogant and domineering, but he’s also a man crippled by self-doubt about the rather transactional relationship others have with his artistic credibility.

And this challenge between artistic authenticity and making-do for commercial survival is at the heart of director Sean Foley’s revival, and as we see aspects of their King Lear from backstage, we see how frantically this company try to keep the show on the road with makeshift approaches that mirror their wartime era. These sections have much in common with Noises Off and Harlequinade as they descend into semi-farce, temporarily lifting the more serious tone of the dressing-room scenes, as anxiety over whether the shambling Sir will make it onto the stage after missing several cues and who will operate the thunder machine, becomes acute.

The wider cast is less well drawn by Harwood, giving us a surface engagement with a number of stereotypes including a fading actress, stoney-faced stage manager, novice actress and younger serious thesp, all of whom pop in and out of the action. Her Ladyship (a private joke with Sir) is given added meaning by Harriet Thorpe, emphasising the difficulty of being a lead actress beyond a certain age, who hasn’t achieved anything like the acclaim of her leading man. It’s clear she genuinely cares for him and the character is key to revealing the political factions backstage. There is a tender moment with Selina Cadell’s stage manager whose icy disapproval begins to make sense, but otherwise the creation of the secondary plots is as slapdash as their production of Lear.

The revolving set is used to marvellous effect in both the more intimate shabby dressing room and the expansive backstage scenes, moving seamlessly between them, and reiterating the collision of private and public life that this play considers. Meanwhile the sound design links the experience of a World War Two bombardment with the emotional collapse of this jaded company enduring one more attack from its volatile star player. With our ongoing fascinating with celebrity and their lives off-camera, The Dresser still feels pertinent to our times, especially with Shearsmith and Stott bringing new meaning to its fractious central relationship.

The Dresser is at The Duke of York’s Theatre until 14 January. Tickets start at £10 (although most are from £25) and are also available on Last Minute from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Were We Entertained? Reviewing a Year of Branagh Theatre

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In a little over two weeks the curtain will come down on The Branagh Theatre Company’s (KBTC) year-long season at The Garrick. It opened last October with The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade / All on Her Own in repertory – starring acting heavyweights Judi Dench, Michael Pennington and Zoe Wannamaker – it scooped-up the West End transfer of Red Velvet, before French farce The Painkiller in March with Rob Brydon. Romeo and Juliet followed in May with rising stars Lily James and Richard Madden, before ending with the elegiac The Entertainer which opened at the end of August. Twelve months, six plays and several star names later, but what has the company achieved and what does this mean for London theatre?

The concept of the actor-manager goes back almost 500 years but became more common in the Victorian era, with Henry Irving being the most successful, before the professionalization of backstage roles altered the ways in which the commercial and artistic development of shows were managed. Kenneth Branagh’s has himself attempted the role before in the Renaissance Theatre Company from 1987-1992 which combined a variety of fringe, West End and touring shows over several years before branching out into the films that eventually took Branagh away from the theatre. Coming back to it nearly 25 years later is, then, an interesting choice – possible a sense of unfinished business for the youthful Branagh that has culminated in this series of new productions.

In many ways the season felt like a coming together of the last two decades of Branagh’s career, working with people he likes and knows well, while integrating his knowledge of film and TV techniques with his arguable preference for fairly classic-forms of theatre production. The most damning criticism levelled at his productions by the critics has been that they are ‘old-fashioned’, but even if you consider them to be – and I’m not sure I do – there is a place for the traditional alongside the innovative in the London theatre landscape, as the popularity of fairly straightforward touring productions would suggest.

But Branagh and his co-director Rob Ashford have taken risks both in the interpretation of some elements of the text and in the production values that speak to some of the modern trends in current theatre. It was Romeo and Juliet that copped-it most from the critics with what was, in my view, an overly harsh blasting of the interpretation and male lead performance. Instead I saw an attempt to play-up the more comic elements of the text, particularly in the balcony scene which became less mushy and more in tune with out slightly derisory take on modern love, that would appeal to the younger crowd attracted by the TV-star leads.

Likewise critical comment on his interpretation of The Entertainer mostly centred around the fact it wasn’t the same as the Olivier production, whereas Branagh’s interpretation of the lead role was necessarily different and extremely poignant, creating a fluidity between the scenes that is a mark of modern approaches to direction. In difficult circumstances, it added fresh insight into a play that is still tainted by the ghosts of its earlier performers.

The ‘old-fashioned’ tag that dogged the series can also be seen as a deliberate choice and actually part of a wider engagement with the biggest theatrical innovation of the twenty-first century – the live cinema screening. Branagh and Ashford’s presentation of Romeo and Juliet was like a 40s Fellini film in black and white. Now, that shouldn’t be the sole preoccupation of directors, but the way we consume theatre, particularly outside of London, is changing and a cinema broadcast could potentially reach more people in one night than attend an entire run, so it was interesting to see that they quite carefully incorporated ideas on how this would look into their finished stage version. The Winter’s Tale and, this week, The Entertainer were also broadcast so, increasingly production teams have an eye for the cinematic – even when it’s not being broadcast as the spectacular Red Barn currently at the National Theatre demonstrates – and while this may affect the staging and interpretation of live performance to a degree, it’s also something that’s not going away.

We should also remember that this was an inaugural season and without knowing what reaction the suite of productions would elicit or whether there was even a market for them, it seems natural that Branagh and co would play it safe both on the choice of shows and in choosing a bankable cast to attract audiences. It may not seem it now we’ve seen them, but the inclusion of Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, a 50s slapstick vehicle that was considerably out of fashion, and the French farce The Painkiller were both notable risks among the more sellable Shakespeare and modern classics. Yet critics and audiences generally loved them, adding much needed levity to a dramatic season and giving Branagh in particular a rare chance to show his comedic skill. Harlequinade especially has been given a new lease of life and we may see it crop-up more regularly in regional and touring productions, while the obsession with life behind-the-scenes that the play captures has arguably marked out an audience who may also be interested in the current revival of The Dresser.

As a new company, Branagh Theatre has also relied on star-power to attract audiences, not just the chance to see Branagh himself – having not appeared in London for 8 years – but in enticing well-loved names like Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to bolster ticket sales. But this is something that every theatre is doing whether it has a company season or not and looking around the West End this year much of what you see is established star vehicles – from No Man’s Land with Stewart and McKellen next door, to Faustus with Kit Harrington, the stage return of Michael Crawford in The Go-Between and a bevy of others. Yet, this season has also given room to acting’s rising stars like Tom Bateman and Jessie Buckley, as well as some fresh-out of drama school graduates who have the chance to learn in exulted company – a training that was also offered to young directors associated with the KBTC. The creation of community and support for development is one of the vital roles a Company structure can play in developing the careers of young performers and the production team – what effect this will have on the individuals involved will be seen in the coming years but, while it may be less obvious to audiences, it is a meaningful way to induct new creatives into the profession.

So what does all of this mean for theatre and where should the KBTC go from here? London is never short of good plays but a Company season always feels a bit special, a collection of plays with something particular to say. And this first grouping took an affectionate look at the nature of theatre and theatre people, as well as examining a particular kind of human desperation – either born of love, loneliness or failure that have made Branagh’s own performances a significant highlight. But there have been companies before and will be again, whether this one survives remains to be seen.

We should hope for a second season in a year or two, but one that having now established itself, can be afford to be more experimental in its allocation of leading roles, in style of production and even in the incorporation of new writing among the classics. The choice of the Garrick was to some degree an unfortunate one, a lovely restored theatre, but the raking is too slight and the curvature of the auditorium so pronounced that many seats have a restricted view – although these were priced accordingly – but maybe somewhere like the Wyndhams would be better.

The commercial success and revenues generated by the inaugural Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season may not be known for some time, but performances always felt full, while, artistically, on balance, it should be considered a success, presenting a variety of interesting and accessible work that created a genuine sense of anticipation and a clear affection among its audiences. Not least, the opportunity to see Branagh himself after so long an interval from the London stage has been a pleasure, and one we should hope will be soon repeated. Roll on season two!

The inaugural season of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company ran from 17 October 2015 – 12 November 2016 (when The Entertainer ends). The Entertainer will be broadcast live to cinemas on Thursday 27 October.


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