Tag Archives: Billie Piper

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.

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Yerma – Young Vic

Yerma - Young Vic

The decision to have a child is something that most women will grapple with at some stage, but the notion that an individual has the right to decide what happens to their body is far from widely accepted. The politics of fertility are hugely controversial with many countries around the world still unprepared to ‘meddle’ with nature, while even here in the UK scientific intervention at any stage of a pregnancy or before can still be incredibly divisive.

In society that is still fairly traditional at heart, through the media and all forms of popular culture we are constantly bombarded by the notion that all women want marriage or a long relationship with children – you can have your career and travel the world but by the time you reach your mid-30s (at the latest) this is all we should want to do. Culturally then we’ve ended up in a position of two extremes, at one end are the women who choose not have children at all and are still seen as odd or deluded – and who didn’t applaud Jennifer Aniston’s comments on this recently – while for those who have children there is an overwhelming pressure to be a pre-defined perfect mother.

But there is a place in the middle that hasn’t been properly addressed, the women who desperately want children but can’t have them. Ben Elton considered this in his surprisingly moving 1999 novel Inconceivable but now Simon Stone’s new play at the Young Vic (which is in preview until Thursday) takes another look at exactly this issue and the all-consuming effects it has on one couple and their family. Yerma is based on the Federico Garcia Lorca 1934 play of the same name which Stone has updated and reset in modern London. Yerma and John are moving in together as the play opens, outwardly they have it all, a beautiful new apartment and a solid exciting relationship. But Yerma is 33 and begins a conversation about having a child, and as the months and years pass without success the couple are torn to pieces by her growing obsession.

This is a tragedy in a true Shakespearean sense; a protagonist with a fatal flaw is driven to absolute destruction by an inability to see beyond their immediate context. And Stone’s production is incredibly powerful, at times disconcerting, alienating and devastating, it helps the audience engage with both perspectives understanding why Yerma’s family are so alarmed by her behaviour, but maintaining incredible sympathy for the pain of the women it follows.

The action takes place in a glass box with mirrored ends designed by Lizzie Clachan, with the actors wearing microphones to allow the audience to hear them. Partially this represents the very public life Yerma is leading because, as a respected journalist, she is sharing the story of her reproductive problems with the world through her blog, which as the years pass becomes increasingly embarrassing and detrimental to her partner’s business. Like last year’s The Trial it uses a traverse style and presumably a treadmill to move sets between scenes, and having the audience face each other creates an even greater sense of the caged animal Yerma becomes, as well that notion of the whole world watching the ‘freak show’ as she lives her trauma in public. The play is also divided into chapters with some scene descriptions giving you a sense of how much time has passed and additional context which again reiterates this idea of something complex and unknowable being boiled-down into a linear story for public consumption.

Stone’s interpretation of Lorca’s work is fresh and exciting, not just in the bang up-to-date references to very modern London including Brexit and our new mayor Sadiq Khan, but also in the use of technology particularly later in the play, to heighten the drama and impact. In a particularly impressive scene Yerma spirals out of control at a festival, high on drugs and losing her grip, while Stone drenches the whole scene with rain and uses strobe lighting to emphasise her heightened and manic state of mind.

It doesn’t all work yet, occasionally the microphones muffle some of the text, particularly early on and a lot of the scene changes are quite long so there’s a lot of sitting in the dark waiting for things to happen, but this will quicken as the run continues. There’s also a potential problem of depth to the secondary characters – Yerma’s mother, sister, ex-boyfriend and younger colleague, as well as occasionally her husband John. It’s not quite clear whether they’re supposed to be fully functioning people in their own right or just become shades to Yerma as her obsession grows, in which case their lack of rounding is less important. But the production should be clearer about their purpose.

Billie Piper’s performance as Yerma absolutely crackles, dominating the production from start to finish. Piper has grown into a hugely watchable and skilled actor with a rare everyman quality that brings real audience engagement to all her roles, and amazing to think now that eyebrows were raised when she was originally cast as the Doctor’s companion. Here she initially seems incredibly relaxed, and her Yerma is a woman who has created a very nice life for herself, a bit smug maybe but with a nice committed boyfriend, a smart home and accelerating career success.

Watching Piper pull that to pieces is like watching her pull petals off a flower – so easy and careless but needlessly destructive. And initially this Yerma takes the reproductive failings in her stride, but when the cracks begin to show in her marriage she becomes more and more like a caged animal, pacing around her glass jail, helplessly and entirely hopelessly trying to fight against her own biology. The performance becomes even more thrilling in the final third as self-destruction takes over, exposing the raw intensity as her obsession and pain get the better of her. But Piper expertly manages to retain a shred of audience sympathy even in the most extreme moments, making her final scenes pitiable and moving.

Australian actor Brendan Cowell takes on the role of John, the often absent boyfriend / husband who perplexedly watches the women he knew change into something else. Initially, there’s not much too him as he floats in and out, but again this is a character that takes some time to build as we see the growing estrangement with his wife. Cowell is particularly good at showing us how John was almost railroaded into having a child he wasn’t that bothered about and how much easier it becomes for him to face the truth. But the real emotional punch comes much later as the relationship breaks down and Cowell shows us the wide-spread cost of Yerma’s obsession and the toll it’s taken on their once perfect lives.

While the other actors have little to work with, special mention for Maureen Beattie’s unaffectionate mother who gets to represent an opposite and ironic view of motherhood as a women who never really wanted the children she had.  With press night to follow later this week, Yerma looks set to reignite debates around fertility politics and a woman’s control over her body.  Simon Stone has created an insightful and compelling vision that gives voice to the suffering and extremity that an unrealised desire for children can create. With a standing ovation for Piper’s performance after just a few previews, this is surely one of the most unmissable performances of the summer.

Yerma is at the Young Vic until 24 September. Tickets are £10 – £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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