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Our Town – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Our Town - Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

For the last few months, London has been obsessed with the classic American drama and in an attempt to diversify, producers are taking risks on a greater variety of plays, risks that are paying off. While Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman are frequently revived the fresh vision of the Old and Young Vic respectively have reorientated our perspective on these famous pieces, while lesser-known work including The Price and The American Clock also made recent appearances in the West End. The Tennessee Williams back-catalogue has been equally well-plundered with a very nice revival of Orpheus Descending arriving at the Menier Chocolate Factory last week, a new West End version of Night of the Iguana in June, an evening of one act dramas at the King’s Head in July and next week a new version of The Glass Menagerie set in an African-American household.

Of course Williams and Miller’s fame and reputation will always sell tickets, even for their less illustrious work, but other writers can be a harder sell, so it’s interesting that the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has chosen to revive Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town which, despite its Pullitzer Prize, is not so well known in the UK. Wilder is one of the most prolific American writers you’ve probably never heard of, penning numerous plays and novels as well as a single film between 1926 and 1973, earning him a total of three Pullitzers – two for playwriting and one for a 1927 novel.

It’s certainly an interesting choice for the Open Air Theatre in what promises to be a season of interesting choices, not least Jamie’s Lloyd’s take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in August. Our Town is a both a strange and almost poetic experience, described as a meta-theatrical work, it uses the conventions of theatre to examine everyday life in small-town America while simultaneously commenting on the limited nature and understanding of human existence. Guided by the “Stage Manager” who directly addresses the audience, dispassionately narrating both the lives of the characters in the years between 1901 and 1913, and the geographical context of the fictional town that pointedly limits their entire existence.

Directed by Ellen McDougall, this new production takes a little while to get used to, particularly as Wilder’s style is to tell not show. The Stage Manager character is a calm and authoritative guide, but deliberately has no distinct personality of her own, she’s not trying to sell the brilliance of the town or in any way criticise the community Our Town reveals, but like the Chorus in Henry V, her purpose is to set the scene, asking the audience to imagine the layout of the town and passing of the years as she guides us through the three thematic Acts – Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Eternity.

Although much later than Wilder, the style is reminiscent of several films in the late 1940s and early 1950s that used voice-over narration to control the story, largely in film noir but occasionally in comedies as well. Equally, Lars von Trier’s Dogville comes to mind – which also used a narrator – in which the activities of a town are inferred rather than shown, and McDougall’s production is a similarly and purposefully alienating experience. As with these examples, Wilder doesn’t want the audience to become too embroiled in the minutia of living, the characters are deliberately thin and cipher-like, and the narrator is a device employed to keep us on the outside of the play. Instead, the cumulative and overall effect of Wilder’s play is to make the audience question the value of living quietly “two-by-two” as everyone else does and what more there could be.

The strength of the Open Air Theatre’s production is in its slow-build effect, that over the course of 2 hours reaches a meaningful conclusion. The final Act is by far the best, set several years after the previous events as the dead reflect on their former existence and the freedom that comes from no longer being alive. A new member unexpectedly joins their ranks who clings to the idea of their old life, desperate to go back and relive one day, despite advice to the contrary. For the first time, at this specific moment, McDougall and designer Rosie Elnile introduce a small detailed room, a confined space that quickly feels more like a trap than the happy memory the character hoped for.

Wilder deliberately conjures almost everything the audience needs to know within the text, so throughout the play very little staging is required. Elnile has filled the stage at the Open Air Theatre with raked seating, a curious decision that distracts from anything else and makes it far harder for the audience to imagine the store fronts, houses and hills that the Stage Manager asks us to picture. Its purpose, assumedly, is twofold, to reflect our own lives back at us, a mirror of similar flip-up seats to the ones we’ve paid to sit in, and possibly also to imply the 2000 other residents of Grover’s Corner referenced in the story.

Throughout the play, characters sit in different seats at various levels of the seating rig, make use of two small balconies to suggest windows and the aisles as though coming down to breakfast. It’s all been clearly choreographed by McDougall to spread the non-speaking actors around the scaffold-like construction to physically separate them and us from the action. But it doesn’t leave much room for the imagination to fill in the gaps and, as you’re trying to adjust to Wilder’s style in the 90-minute first half that combines Acts I and II, it dwarfs the scenes on the stage in front, so rather than facilitate the play the design is more often at odds with it.

Other approaches are less intrusive, and the performers wear modern clothes in a variety of bright colours apart from the narrator in black. At the start the actors line-up and the Stage Manager introduces them by their real name stating which character they will perform – this and the lack of period setting support Wilder’s desire not to immerse the audience in the story, actively preventing the theatrical illusion from taking hold from the start to ensure that we see ourselves  and the broader themes about life and community reflected on the stage.

As the Stage Manager Laura Rogers is a friendly but authoritative narrator. Taking Wilder’s cue, Rogers makes no obvious comment on the town and its people, the lines are delivered without sentiment or obvious allegiance to the area or any people as though the Stage Manager is a detached observer factually describing what she sees. Rogers engages well with the audience – the only character to do so directly – and is our tour guide around the world of the play, stopping scenes, creating new locations and occasionally playing some of the supernumeraries including the doddery owner of the soda shop.

We are not particularly expected to invest in the life of the townsfolk which is a tricky position for the rest of the cast. Their purpose is to represent the rolling nature of life, of births, marriages and deaths, of getting-up to make the family breakfast everyday for forty year while waiting for the paperboy. Nonetheless, they must imply the reality of lives they represent and that there are real people living like this all the time who, as Wilder suggests, are so drawn into the routines and expectations of society that they are perhaps unable to see life in perspective and, separately, its value.

Nominally, the audience follows two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs; Karl Collins and Pandora Colin as Dr and Mrs Gibb are pillars of the town and good friends with neighbours Thusitha Jayasundera and Tom Edden as Mrs and Editor Webb, the owner of the local newspaper. Together they are the picture of ordinary American society in the early twentieth century, the men work in respectable jobs, the women cook and raise the children, normal, unremarkable, decent families ordered by an externally-imposed structure to their day, none of them thinking beyond the preparations for dinner or disapproving local gossip about the drunken choir master (an amusing Peter Hobday).

We follow their children George Gibb played by Arthur Hughes and Francesca Henry as Emily Webb who share homework tips as teenagers before eventually marrying. Both convey the innocent enthusiasm of the school child morphing into shy lovers-to-be. Hughes has a particularly good scene with Edden as a future son-in law asks advice about marriage from Mr Webb on his wedding day, working through the doubts. Henry’s Emily comes into her own in Act III as the story takes her character in a different direction which allows her greater time to reflect on her life in which Henry suggests well both the enthusiasm for it and the pain it causes.

The staging choices in Our Town do impede the action to a degree, making it harder for the audience to imagine the streets and countryside that the Stage Manager describes to us, and given the backdrop of Regent’s Park it seems a shame to cover it up. All the actors have microphones but with so large a seating rig it’s not always instantly obvious who is speaking as the sound comes from the side speakers, and some of the general town scenes become lost. Over time, and especially by Act III, Our Town does start to work its magic and the audience sees Grover’s Corner as a place people live all their lives, where even the hooting railroad becomes nothing more than a symbol of freedom that no one ever uses.

With two more previews to go, Our Town has a little work to do to find a clearer rhythm for Acts I and II, working within the confines of the slightly restrictive staging they have chosen. It was a cold May evening and a number of people departed at the interval, but this production of Our Town is still a worthwhile and interesting experience. Wilder’s writing feels as fresh and innovative as it must have done in the 1930s and taking an early season risk on a less conventional play ultimately pays off. Most importantly, this new desire to look beyond the well-known classics is creating opportunities to rethink our relationship with the theatre past and, through new approaches to diversity and inclusion, reimagine them for the future.

Our Town is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 8 June with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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Orpheus Descending – Menier Chocolate Factory

Orpheus Descending - Theatre Clywd

The rediscovery and restaging of the lesser known works of major playwrights has been something of a trend in London theatres recently. Duncan MacMillan and Ian Rickson’s critically acclaimed production breathed new life into Ibsen’s Rosmersholm with its modernist female-lead and political storyline that found new resonances, making a reasonable case for the play’s inclusion amongst Ibsen’s finest writing. Last year Rebecca Frecknall and Patsy Ferran did the same for Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, but despite the many good things about Tamara Harvey’s new production of Orpheus Descending it’s never going to be considered a neglected masterpiece.

Yet even a middling Tennessee Williams play is better than most, and this one still has plenty to say about sacrifice and suffocation in small-town America. Written in 1957, this is mid-period Williams, it comes after greats such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and immediately followed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but before Sweet Bird of Youth and Night of the Iguana a revival of which opens at the Noel Coward in June. Orpheus Descending didn’t last long on its debut and the play has a number of structural problems which even Harvey’s fine production cannot entirely overcome.

With the entirety of the play set in the Torrance store, much of the action happens off-stage either in other locations or between scenes, so what the audience hears is either character memories or town gossip which can make the action feel a little static or, in places, too fast moving. What set Williams’s greatest works apart is the family setting in which long-buried tensions and frustrations are triggered and released by the catalytic action of the play, examined through long character-driven exchanges. Additional context has happened before and around the action, but Williams ensures the storm gathers and breaks in front of us.

Orpheus Descending has elements of that but with the key focus on the disconcerting arrival of a handsome stranger causing chaos in the town, Williams is only partially successful. His protagonist here Valentine Xavier, known as Val, is the agent of change despite his intention to live a cleaner life now he’s 30. His arrival is a chance for the townsfolk to exorcise a past act – the burning of the wine garden and orchard which resulted in the death of Lady’s father – and to confront the truth about its consequences many years later. Val may exacerbate this knowledge, but he has no connection to it which reduces some of the play’s tension.

Val and Lady (daughter of the deceased owner of the wine garden, derogatorily referred to as “The Wop” throughout) have most of the conversation but with less than four months acquaintance by the end of the play there are no damaging secrets or withheld frustrations between them that energise Williams’s better works. Val’s travelling loner status and wild past is interesting, but he lacks the raw jealous control of Stanley Kowalski or the stunted boyhood bitterness of Brick Pollitt that reverberates around the family unit caught helplessly in their self-destructive force. Instead, Williams has to place these legacy resentments and secrets in the hands of characters we hardly get to see, lessening their impact even in the play’s dramatic and revelatory final scene.

But Orpheus Descending is by no means a bad play, and Harvey’s production which opened at Theatre Clwyd in April, makes the best of it with a well-paced ¾ round production that focuses on Williams’s engaging character studies and the impressionistic sketch of a small town full of fears and repressed emotion. Jonathan Fensom takes a simple approach to setting, and rather than creating a general store full of stock and a shop counter instead offers a scattering of fold-up chairs and a few tables to give the look of a café or outside picnic area. Serving as the shop doorway, the rear wall is dominated by a large wooden archway with slightly singed boards – quietly referencing the fire at the Moon Lake wine garden that took Lady’s father’s life. This obscures the “Confectionary” that Lady is adding to the building, and the town beyond where so much of the drama takes place away from the audience’s view.

One of Harvey’s most intriguing inventions is to use the character of Uncle Pleasant as a kind of Chorus, echoing the Greek legend on which the story is based. An almost mute character in Williams’s original, a local “Conjure Man” who frightens some of the more highly-strung ladies but used to imply freedom from the oppressive rules of this exclusionist and racist town that resists all outsiders, Val included. Harvey has given Valentine Hanson’s Uncle Pleasant carefully selected passages from the stage directions to read at various points through the play, almost as though the character is “conjuring” the store and its people as a moral warning to the viewer. It’s an interesting and welcome technique that adds additional layers to the production, although perhaps is used too sparingly to create a sense of inevitability to the same extent as the narrated structure of Greek legends do.

The repression of wildness and its consequences is a key theme, one which Williams handles with particular skill. The notion of the store is juxtaposed as a metaphor for commercial exchange repeatedly referenced in the play, and something which Harvey’s version draws attention to, the idea of people being bought and sold in marriage and other forms of oppressive relationship. Lady is central to this and right at the start of the play townswoman Beulah (Catrin Aaron) explains to the audience that store owner Jabe “bought her, when she was a girl of eighteen! He bought her and bought her cheap.” Later in the play, during a slightly rushed and unlikely conversation with David Cutrere who left her to marry a richer woman Lady tells him “You sold yourself. I sold myself. You was bought. I was bought.”  Even Val says “I’m telling you, lady, there’s people bought and sold in this world like carcasses of hogs in butcher shops!”

This is designed to show us the psychological state of many of the characters, limited by the confines of their location and broken down by lives they never wanted. While women like Beulah and Dolly (Laura Jane Matthewson) are happier with their lot, the three more central characters – Val, Lady and Carol Cutrere – are caged animals like many a Williams character, unable to tame their natural wildness however many years they live in confinement. Carol is perhaps the most tragic of these with Jemima Roper at first suggesting a woman much more at ease with who and what she us, unashamed and almost proud of the stares and the gossip her appearance and behaviour elicits. Carol is the only character to be friendly to Uncle Pleasant, while openly and lustfully pursuing Val throughout the play.

Yet, Roper allows us to see the vulnerability and essential fragility in Carol as the action unfolds, explaining that her over-made-up appearance is a mask of expectation, a self-proclaimed “exhibitionist” oppressed by the family name and acting out for effect. But Roper shows us that Carol’s bravado, the drink, the partying, the men on Cyprus Hill are manifestations of her broken spirit, the obsession with Val and her increasing desperation has a real tragedy in Roper’s performance that underscores Williams’s core theme about the artificial restrictions places on people not build for ordinary society.

Hattie Morahan’s Lady is in a slightly different kind of cage, one she built herself by aligning with the much older Jabe. At the start of the play her strength and determination are emphasised, there’s a no-nonsense feel to her that seems practical and different to the other women in the town, unaffected by Val’s handsome face. Lady sits on the boundary of insider and outsider status, still seen as the daughter of someone who didn’t belong but through sheer determination forced herself into the town’s structure through marriage and in maintaining the focal-point store.

Yet, as the play unfolds, Morahan allows this resignation to slowly unpeel, revealing a woman more deeply scarred by the death of her father and the former relationship that would have offered a happier life. The early conversations with Val are played as two equals, employer and employee without an underlying sexual tension which suggests Lady’s emotional centre is more tightly controlled, that she’s not looking for an escape route. Morahan instead implies that the passion between them is more spontaneous, their eventual chemistry growing out of being listened to and respected for the first time in years, which unleashes a torrent (linking to her married surname) of emotion and a trembling hope that makes the finale both poignant and powerful. It’s an approach that yields rewards in Morahan’s interesting and meaningful interpretation of a woman rediscovering her spirit.

Seth Numrich is an experienced Williams leading man, having previously starred alongside Kim Cattrall in The Old Vic’s Sweet Bird of Youth, and his Val finds himself at a crucial decision point in his life. Having just turned 30, he’s trying to turn his back on his former fast-paced lifestyle and unlike Carol struggles less with the desire to find something more wholesome. Numrich presents a calm figure, detached from those around him seeking a kind of peace. His chemistry with Lady develops slowly, as friendship becomes something else. It may not be a grand burning passion, but the steadier coming together of two damaged souls.

But as the play unfolds his old life starts to call him back, releasing he cannot so easily switch-off the old desires and struggling to transition to the better, more stable man he wants to be. Numrich’s finest moment is later in the play at a crucial point of revelation, one which Val embraces with genuine delight, finally offered the chance, albeit momentarily, to be all the things he hoped for, a scene that Numrich suggests is crucial to the psychology of Val, a traveller looking for direction.

Following Harvey’s recent West End success with Home, I’m Darling, this production of Orpheus Descending similarly examines the one-size-fits-all role women have been expected to play in society and how damaging that can be. The chilly auditorium may reflect Lady’s frequent complaints about the coldness in the store after dark – the Menier perhaps making it a little too immersive – but this well-performed and considered production is a consistently interesting and valuable experience. It’s not Williams’s best work by any means but the complexity of his character portraits and its comment on “them and us” attitudes still hold considerable meaning for modern audiences.

Orpheus Descending is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6 July with tickets from £40. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Death of a Salesman – Young Vic

Death of a Salesman - Young Vic

With high-quality Arthur Miller revivals across the West End this Spring, the arrival of his much-revived 1949 tale of travelling salesman Willy Loman and his family at the Young Vic has elicited much expectation, not least because celebrated director Marianne Elliott is at the helm. Good direction can often go unnoticed, when the play flows seamlessly or builds the requisite tension and emotional investment for an audience the writer is often credited, but good direction gets to the heart of the play, amplifying and clarifying its themes and resonances. And then there are the directors you do notice, the ones who see beyond the text and its history of performance to entirely change our perspective on the work, these are the visionaries.

We are lucky enough to have a handful of truly visionary directors working regularly in the West End today, all of whom have produced shows in the last few months. Love or loathe their work – and the burden of their approach is to be so divisive – it has a distinctive and recognisable style of its own and is unlike anything else you will see. Ivo van Hove is one such director, liberating the classics like Hedda Gabler and A View from the Bridge from their set-based imprisonment while introducing cinematic techniques into his stage translations of Network and All About Eve. Jamie Lloyd has transformed our perspective on Harold Pinter over many years, not least in the ground-breaking Pinter at the Pinter season and a moving new version of Betrayal, while his take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita this summer will be something to see.

Female directors too are carving a path to visionary status, with Rebecca Frecknall, though early in her career, finding her own style in the astounding Summer and Smoke, followed by a solid revival of Three Sisters. But it is Elliott who has surprised us again and again, not just changing the way theatre is made in her management of technique and production scale, but also upending our perspective of a well-known work with one radical, but fairly canny, decision. When Elliott approached Stephen Sondheim for permission to change the gender of the protagonist in Company the result was inspirational, leading to a long West End run and a new life for a show that felt as though it had always been written that way.

Now, working with Miranda Cromwell, her approach to Death of a Salesman is doing the same, shifting Miller’s perspective on a working family struggling to find their place while reaching for the fabled American Dream. In Elliott and Cromwell’s new version which opens to the press on Thursday, the action takes place in the home of an African American family for the first time, which in some respects makes no difference to the text – suggesting the universality of Miller’s themes and their easy transposition to all kinds of family life – but simultaneously offers a new angle to view this familiar story that, with little change, brings new and meaningful tones to the dialogue.

Miller’s play, on one level, is about ageing and the shift of responsibility and power from parent to child played out within the family, as well as in the commerce-based subplot in which the titular salesman Willy’s ability to perform comes into question. But, the continued infantilization of his two sons, Biff and Happy, means neither is ready to assume responsibility for the household despite being well into their 30s. The intricate balance of fears, resentments and false illusions that connect the Lomans is particularly well created in this production as these men are forced to confront who they really are.

All of the Lomans are fixated on a period 15-years previously when popular eldest son Biff was captain of the school football team and expected to go to College – strongly implied here that he would have been the first member of the family to do so. Willy too was a successful salesman, well-known and welcomed amongst his clients in a time of great prosperity for the family. A flunked maths test and an unknown breach sends the entire family in a different direction; Death of a Salesman is the story of the slow and painful death of these dreams and, as ever with Miller, the acceptance of the truth that remains.

Elliott and Cromwell’s production is full of innovation and while it’s not quite coming together yet, it has all of the building blocks in place to reach where it needs to be in a few performance’s time. With the RSC’s recent production still present in the mind, designer Anna Fleischle eschews the two-story home we’ve seen so many times before and instead opts for a granite tomb-like single floor, with raised platforms to denote different rooms. A barely visible rear staircase shrouded in darkness is used subtly by the characters to occasionally suggest action on the mainstage is now taking place on a different storey. Most visually arresting however are the items of furniture, lighting and windows suspended above the stage and lowered into place to create different rooms.

It’s an impressionistic approach that yields considerable insight into the themes of the play, the characters’ attachment to material possessions as indicators of success, and most especially to the physical home that contains their family history, which they have spent decades slowly paying-off. With almost continuous action and few obvious scene breaks, what Fleischle suggests with this flowing scenery is the tantalising yet illusory nature of these symbols of achievement (both family and objects), that as easily as they lower into place they are removed, and it is matriarch Linda Loman who clearly draws on this point in the play’s pointed conclusion.

The sparring use of music is one of the most notable aspects of this new production which under the musical directorship of Femi Temowo uses the African-American setting to bring additional layers of tragedy by aligning it with the pain and storytelling of mid-century jazz, blues and, at times, even gospel. It opens with cast members singing a sober melody, occasionally lines are sung softly for emphasis while the conversation continues above it, and it ends with an equally sorrowful lament that feels poignant and exciting as a technique. The emotive quality of jazz and blues in particular seems to suit the action without being intrusive while reinforcing the call away from New York to the south and a different kind of living which is one of Miller’s main points of exploration.

Perhaps more than any production of recent times, this version of Death of a Salesman with its hard city surface and not a hint of green, draws out the character’s yearning for the pastoral world and the cleaner, more physical life it offers. This is particularly true for Biff who speaks with passion for his work on a cattle farm and the satisfaction of being within the rhythms of nature and the earth. But other characters also muse on the wonders of life beyond Brooklyn as Willy recalls happy times travelling across New England admiring the countryside which speaks directly to his soul in Wendell Pierce’s performance, and despite his wife’s insistence and the exhaustion that affects his mind, he is reluctant to return to New York for good.

The artificiality of the American Dream and the life it creates for people cooped-up in cities, buying status-based conveniences they don’t really need has major consequences for Willy Loman. Working with Pierce, Elliott and Cromwell create a strange dreamlike quality to Willy’s memories that frequently intrude on the present day. His increasing bewilderment marks a crisis point in the lives of the Loman family, one in which the provider is no longer capable, a reality from which the family seek to protect him and themselves. This schism is given physical form using a series of flashbulbs to cut between fragments of memory, interspersed with slow-motion sports posing and movement as he remembers his son’s heroism and converses in his mind with his own brother Ben about making money. The hyper-real nature of these sections though deliberately stylised are a little awkward, veering into cheesy at times, and although Miller’s message is clear, there is work to do here to increase the efficacy of the scenes.

The production is on much firmer ground with its compelling real-world conversations, and in the sympathetic portrayal of Willy’s breakdown. There is no King Lear-style grand dementia but smaller shifts in personality and lucidity that, as the story unfolds, claim more of Willy’s mind. Pierce gives a meaningful and compassionate performance as a man who has no idea what is happening to him but implies the frustration others experience in caring for his present condition as well as the intimidating man he once was. The rupture in his family began long before, so Pierce adeptly manages this complex bundle of character traits from different eras of his life very well, but as aspects of the fiery antagonist that occasionally reappears with Biff becomes clouded with mutterings about the professional respect he once enjoyed and a desire to escape it all, Pierce’s performance becomes increasingly saddening.

As with previous productions, Biff is probably the most interesting member of the Loman family, and Arinzé Kene captures the duality at the heart of the character. In the early scenes as he reconnects with his brother, the youthful enthusiasm for the rustic work he adores lights him up, but as events play out the pull of his sports-star past and the burden of his parents’ expectations weigh heavy. The intensity Kene brings to the exchanges with his family are excellent, but full of rage as the self-appointed bearer of truth, Kene’s Biff is riven with his own sense of failure, at 34 still hiding from the realities of adulthood, the catalyst for change in his family as he tries to throw off the past in the quest to discovery who he’s meant to be.

Martins Imhangbe as the womanising Happy and Sharon D. Clarke as Linda complete the family unit, with the ever-reliable Clarke bringing texture to the role of devoted wife. Full of pity for her husband and the cruel hand life has dealt him, she’s determined to defend him to the end, even if it means losing her sons – and Clarke gets to use her beautiful soulful voice which helps to flesh-out a small role, suggesting her stoicism while carving out her own motivation by linking to her faith.

Despite being set in what seems to be the 1950s, the Second World War and the implication that both sons may have fought doesn’t frame the Young Vic’s production with the same kind of inevitable intensity that drives All My Sons down the road at the Old Vic, and at 3 hours and 15 minutes it is overlong. Yet, with a focus on “not fitting in” or belonging to this urban world of workers and nepotism, Miller’s play is slightly re-orientated to subtly expose the very different challenges and barriers for African-American families in this period. At this early stage the many well-crafted elements haven’t fully woven satisfactorily together but even if they don’t, with visionary director Marianne Elliott leading the way with such insight, it’s more than enough that this eye-opening production exists at all.

Death of a Salesman is at the Young Vic until 13 July with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Rosmersholm – Duke of York’s Theatre

Rosmersholm - Duke of York's Theatre

The pursuit of great roles for women has driven much recent theatre discussion but relatively little action in the last two years, and despite the global impact of the #MeToo movement, male-centric dramas by male writers are still by far the norm. New works including The Writer and Dance Nation at the Almeida as well as the West End success of Nine Night, Emilia and Home, I’m Darling are gaining ground, putting diverse female stories centre stage. But revivals are just as vital to the continued success of the West End, which seem to limit the roles for women, but perhaps we’re just not commissioning the right plays.

Shakespeare may have left few truly great parts for women, but elsewhere the classical canon is full of substantial leading ladies, particularly in works written a hundred or so years ago when arguably the theatrical landscape was more progressive than it seems now. There has been renewed interest in late nineteenth and early-twentieth century dramatists at fringe theatres across London – D H Lawrence’s play The Daughter-in-Law was revived brilliantly at the Arcola last year, while the forgotten St John Ervine’s fascinating Jane Clegg is currently playing at the Finborough Theatre. Both wrote plenty of nuanced, self-sufficient women discovering a desire for freedom from the mores of marriage and family that set them on the path to a new kind of intellectual and spiritual emancipation. Chekhov and later Tennessee Williams also wrote complex, messy female characters that burn with all kinds of emotion, but it was Ibsen who truly mastered the female voice.

Many of Ibsen’s major plays focus on female self-discovery, on the stripping away of surface notions of politics, societal expectation and often their own personality delusions to achieve an undeniable awareness. The tragedy for these characters is being trapped in an era that prevents their easy escape from the artifice of their lives, the feet of clay and fear of scandal that crushes any hope of true liberation. The eponymous protagonist of Hedda Gabler, Nora in A Doll’s House even Helen Alving in Ghosts must all confront the reality they hide from and face the inevitable future that follows. In Rosmersholm, Ibsen created one of his greatest and most ambiguous heroines, leaving you wondering just who is Rebecca West?

This rarely seen drama, now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre, sits at an intriguing moment between old and new, the eve of an election which the occupants of Rosmersholm manor house hope will usher in a radical new era of equality and fairness. The play opens with a Spring-like freshness, as live-in companion Rebecca West orders the removal of the shutters and dust sheets from the room overlooking the mill that has remained unused since the suicide of Rosmer’s wife a year before. With Neil Austin’s lighting design sending beams of light through the reopened windows and Rae Smith dressing the set with baskets of freshly cut wild flowers, there is hope and opportunity for all kinds of new beginnings.

In Ian Rickson’s controlled production, that optimism barely lasts beyond dinner as former-Pastor Rosmer confesses to his brother-in-law the Governor that he has lost his faith and has been radicalised by Rebecca. Throughout the play there are references to different kinds of manipulation and the various interpretations of truth that Ibsen observes in society; both the radical newspaper and the traditional government seek the endorsement of the church to guarantee their victory, attempting to coerce Rosmer to their cause despite the clear abandonment of his faith and the open artlessness of his own character – the appearance of fact, Ibsen rather pointedly suggests, is enough to fool the public into believing it, a resonance not lost on a modern audience.

But there are also personal manipulations at play which eventually draws Rebecca into the spotlight. Ibsen is a very smart dramatist and while the viewer may want a conversation between her and Rosmer, Ibsen makes us wait until Act III for anything of substance, by which time we have been asked to consider the context of their lives, the nature of their involvement and, crucially, to view both of them as reasonable, decent people misunderstood by the outside world. What happens so brilliantly in the second half of this production is the slow unravelling of that certainty, leaving us to question how healthy their influence over each other is and, as Rebecca most crucially asks in the play’s final moments, “is it you that go with me, or I that go with you?”

As the story unfolds, what Rickson’s interpretation emphasises is the idea that the past and the future cannot be uncoupled, that whatever we are and want to be will always be connected to, and to some degree, held back by our heritage. The importance of Rosmersholm as a building in the community, as a rallying point, as a marker of stability as well as the value of the Rosmer family name is referenced many times, and while John Rosmer cares little for it at the start of the play, over the course of four acts the weight of that history, of living-up to the exploits of all those portraits on the wall starts to pull him back while a physical connection to the house itself also invades Rebecca’s certainty.

There are no half-measures with a Hayley Atwell performance, and as an actor she has a unique ability to convey truth, to inhabit her characters completely. There are so many layers to Rebecca West, and she has found them all without ever losing her essential ambiguity as questions about her possibly poisonous influence on Rosmer drive the drama. In the early scenes, there is a certainty and directness with a firm grasp of the household business, while repeatedly urging Rosmer to tell Kroll the truth about his changing views. Its subtly done, an almost wifely or motherly control that only in retrospect, once we hear the Governor’s perspective, suggests her puppet-mastery.

But Ibsen ensures that Rebecca is no obvious villain, unfolding aspects of her backstory and the acquaintance with the Rosmers at key moments that not only enlighten the audience but come even as a surprise to her. As we focus entirely on Rebecca in the second half of the play, Atwell’s performance grows in stature, responding to revelations and accusations with shock but also a fierce determination to live a life free of externally-imposed rules. Her monologue in Act III that expounds her decision to eschew the trappings of family and love is passionately and meaningfully delivered, a classic Ibsen woman raging against attempts to cage her.

Self-realisation is the focus of the final Act and Atwell superbly conveys the effect of this new understanding as Rebecca’s intellectual determination is somehow betrayed by the biology she has long sought to control. The fresh understanding of her effect at Rosmersholm and particularly on its owner brings an overwhelming guilt that leads to a final dramatic revelation and a sacrificial act the truth of which Atwell leaves the audience to determine. Atwell’s ability to suggest strength and frailty at the same time is terrific, so whether Rebecca is a truly good woman ahead of her time or a force to destroy traditions and people she doesn’t understand remains purposefully and provocatively unanswered.

By contrast, Tom Burke’s Rosmer is a shade of a man, a character weakened by a grief and guilt he cannot truly fathom. It is a very skilful performance from Burke to suggest a mind so easily influenced, politically fervent one minute and wavering the next, while subtly introducing what seems to be an emotional break-down. Rosmer dominates the action in Acts I and II, apparently in control of his mind and implying that his friendship with Rebecca has released him from the burden of his ever-visible ancestry and importantly from the restrictive confines of his faith – intrinsic to the fabric of local society against which his new-found atheism sets him at odds.

It is only later in light of our shifting perspective on Rebecca that we come to see Rosmer differently, as a man emotionally paralysed by his wife’s earlier suicide and, in Burke’s well controlled performance, in the grip of a grief-driven madness that creates a fervency in his political views and potentially his feeling for Rebecca which may be a mere delusion of his survivor’s guilt. The Hamlet parallels come thick and fast, not just in an explosive moment in Act III as Rosmer thrusts flowers into the hands of his servants as he apologises for his own prolongation of the feudal system, but also in the low-key emotional crash which follows as Burke’s Rosmer finds himself unable to take the decisive step he craves, his courage failing him as the past reasserts its control over his present.

Rosmer is a quiet character with an essential weakness, looking to Rebecca at the end of Act II and on into Acts III and IV to lead him forward which Burke conveys extremely well. Like Atwell, Burke becomes his characters so convincingly that the relationship between them is incredibly involving, the longed-for duologues that dominate the second half of the play are enthralling as they face not just their feeling for each other but also the political, social and reputational cost of their past, current and future relationship.

Giles Terera’s Governor captures the upstanding but fearful nature of the local politician, desperate to save his friend from himself while ensuring his own electability. Though dressed as concern for his deceased sister, it matters that Ibsen choses the eve of the election to send Professor Kroll to the house for the first time in a year while clearly he has used his influence to discover more about Rebecca. Kroll changes his opinion of her, railing when she’s out of the room, but more forgiving in her presence, suggesting perhaps an admiration for her determination and how effectively her personal attributes work on him despite his determination to resist them.

If Rickson’s production has one failing it is the curious inclusion of Rosmer’s former tutor Ulrik Brendel whose reappearance lends credit to the notion that the landlord had radical sympathies before he knew Rebecca, but Peter Wright’s rather conscious performance as the teacher-turned-philosophising tramp feels more like a court jester than a firebrand living beyond social law. The character seems superfluous here, adding little to the drama, with his bigger performance derailing the fragile balance of the scene, particularly in the very powerful final conversation between the leads.

Rosmersholm is rarely seen these days but it is a play with a pertinent political and social commentary that clearly justifies this new revival. These resonances are a little on the nose at times, but murmurs of recognition sweep across the audience as characters discuss the deceptive nature of elections, as well as the duties of class and legacy. Hayley Atwell’s multi-layered and charismatic central performance shows that Rebecca West is a heroine like no other, refusing to be shackled by a society that seeks to contain her. Most importantly Rickson’s gripping production suggests that great female roles are to be found among the classics if only we look hard enough.

Rosmersholm is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 20 July with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


All My Sons – The Old Vic

All My Sons - Old Vic

For fans of Arthur Miller, spring has brought a clutch of new productions to the West End with several theatres  scheduling shows in quick succession, offering audiences a chance to see less well-known work as well as exciting new revivals of his most famous plays. While The Price was well received at the Wyndhams,  Miller’s late piece The American Clock about the Great Depression at the Old Vic failed to illuminate one of the writers most disappointing plays. Miller’s best work, however, was always about families and the ways in which the American Dream, the forces of modern US history and social expectation play out among the confined dynamics of a single household.

Now half-way through this mini-Miller season, and with that in mind, Marianne Elliott’s much anticipated adaptation of Death of a Salesman set in an African American household opens shortly at the Young Vic and looks set to bring new meaning to this well-worn play. This week the Old Vic presents its new version of All My Sons to the press, a production that boasts three significant debuts – Hollywood and Broadway elite Sally Field and Bill Pullman make their first West End appearance as does Jenna Coleman essentially working on her first professional play. Colin Morgan is virtually a West End veteran by comparison undertaking his second major role in under a year (having played the lead in Translations at the National last May).

Set in 1947, All My Sons is a story about the long shadow of conflict and one family’s inability to move-on from the death of their eldest son in combat until truths are heard and a final reckoning occurs. These are major themes in Miller’s work as personal delusions must be shattered so that a purer world can emerge, one in which the younger generation can live free of the guilt of their parents who must accept responsibility for the world they have created, one often driven more by commerce than duty. All My Sons is a tragedy in the truest theatrical sense, as flawed characters must recognise their folly and atone for the devastation they cause, something which director Jeremy Herrin manages adroitly as his production builds to its powerful and inevitable finale.

But as the curtain rises on Max Jones’s charming garden set, the Keller house looms into view, indicating right from the start that this seemingly beautiful home is a trap for each of the characters we are about to meet, the manifestation of patriarch Joe’s need to provide for his family, but with a stranglehold that prevents any of them from truly moving on. Still mourning the death of their son Larry – or in wife Kate’s view refusing to accept his death – the family are frozen by the events of their past, the apple tree snapped in half by the storm denoting a rotten emptiness beneath Jones’s verdant design, one that mirrors Joe’s character, the surface decency stripped away as the story unfolds.

The cost of war hangs heavy over this lush scene and in Herrin’s meaningful production a clear divide is drawn between the men who fought and the much-hated war profiteers, in this case carving the Keller family right down the middle. The three core young men in the play – Larry, Chris and Ann’s brother George – are all veterans, risking death and injury for their country which creates an idealism in Chris particularly about the kind of world they fought to protect. Their military service is subtly referenced but it stands in stark contrast to the concerns of businessman Joe, building a firm from scratch and, after the accusations against him are dispelled, taking pride in resuming his place in the neighbourhood and his profit margin. Miller actively asks the audience whether these two things have the same societal value, a question which drives the play’s powerful conclusion. Miller is drawing a clear line between the experience of former servicemen and the civilians who will never understand.

There is a shifting notion of heroism in Herrin’s production, not just in the idea of servicemen dying in battle and this tangible concept of societal duty that underscores the central drama, but it is also there in the relationships between father and son – another major Miller theme – as Chris is forced to readjust his devoted admiration for Joe in light of the play’s various revelations. The result is affectingly portrayed here as the external perception of Joe and his own self-image are fundamentally destroyed. What makes this so illuminating a proposition is that unlike the idealistic Chris living in a bubble of family protection, Miller reveals that the secondary characters, neighbours and friends were never fooled, that there is a complicity in the knowledge that Joe had cheated the system for his own ends, showing him and this perfect enclave of rural America to be a far grubbier proposition, pitting this against the suggested purity of the younger generation dying in battle to preserve a country that  betrayed them.

The faces Joe shows to his family and to the world are clearly quite different and those layers are what make Pullman’s performance so fascinating. As an actor, his creations often have an essential decency through their core that makes them generally admirable, whether he’s playing the bumbling lover in rom-com While You Were Sleeping, US President in Independence Day or surly detective in The Sinner, there is an essential humanity and compassion in the characters he chooses. Here, Pullman uses our expectation to his advantage, blindsiding the audience with Joe’s surface charm. When we first meet him, he’s relaxing in the garden, light and friendly with his neighbours, devoted to his son, the very image of man at ease with himself and the life he’s worked hard to build. But there is something under the surface that subtly takes over Pullman’s performance. You hardly notice it at first, only that his son never returns the physical affection Joe shows him, there is a barely perceptible barrier keeping them apart.

Joe’s determination to ignore Kate’s ravings for her lost son, his frustration with neighbour Frank for humouring her with a horoscope to prove Larry must still be alive, and later his momentary loss of temper slowly builds a picture of a different man to the one we’ve seen. Pullman is excellent in conveying the slow emergence of Joe’s commercial and unforgiving inner self, the artful manipulation of those around him to conceal the truth and the gradual realignment of the audience’s perspective on him. Yet the performance is still full of pathos, particularly in the closing scenes when he must confront his crumbling self-assurance while clinging to the excuse of family prosperity. The power of the play’s finale moments is testament to the conflicted complexity that Pullman has found in Miller’s hugely flawed but engagingly multi-layered character.

In the same vein Kate’s illusions must also be shattered in order for this contaminated past to be left behind, a place where only by facing the truth can the characters be free to live as Kate urges Chris in the play’s final moments. Sally Field is exceptionally good as Kate in an incredibly difficult role that must make the nervy emotionalism of a desperate mother somehow credible without seeming too histrionic which Field does with ease. Her Kate is at a fever pitch from the start, fussily anxious about Ann’s unexpected return and the consequences for her family while clinging harder than ever to the certainty of Larry’s eventual return.

What Field does so well is balance the extremes of Kate’s behaviour, making her a frustrating person for Chris and Joe to manage, while retaining a deep sympathy for a woman who has devoted her life to being a wife and mother – a maternal warmth that equally welcomes the temporary return of George with genuine affection – and now unable to accept the failure of her own dreams for herself and for them. Her delusion makes her occasionally cruel, especially to Ann but also to Chris with whom she also remains at a slight distance, while the final reckoning is devastatingly played by Field as the truth finally overwhelms her.

Colin Morgan as son Chris is the innocent in the play, reacting to the revelations and sudden shifts that affect the lives of his parents. As an all-American boy who served his country and returned to the family business, Morgan pitches his performance somewhere between Marlon Brando and James Dean, a young man keen to embrace the future with a marriage inspired by the happiness of his parents but frustrated by the general pretence that the war never happened. Of all the characters Chris is most eager for truth and a new beginning but still craves the familiarity of home which Morgan evokes well.

As the most idealistic character, we start to see other, more critical, perspectives on Chris as the story unfolds so Morgan inserts a slight ambiguity into the relationship with Joe, a discomfort when hugged or touched by his father implying, at least a subconscious implication, of his father’s deception that aligns with the neighbour’s view of Chris’s possible complicity. Although Morgan’s accent gets a little thicker in the final act as Chris’s emotional state heightens, his performance suggests interesting questions about what he really knew and whether pursuing his brother’s fiancée is a chance to make amends for his family’s crimes. Is Chris more like his mother than he realises, refusing to believe something he knows to be true, eventually forced to confront his own failure to act.

Jenna Coleman makes an impressive stage debut as Ann, the catalyst for change in the Keller family, convincingly capturing the frustration and forward-looking desire of a woman expected to mourn her dead fiancé forever. Her affection for the Keller family is clear along with the need to return from the anonymous city to a place that signifies home and comfort, something she hopes a life with Chris will restore to her. Equally her brother George, played extremely well by Oliver Johnstone, has the most dramatic scene, full of rage and injustice as he sweeps in determined to rectify the past. Also a war veteran, Johnstone implies a slight limp, and uses his small but pivotal role to reinforce the loss of innocence that Miller is writing about in this Eden-like garden, where George is tempted for a few seconds by the warmth of the Keller family and his own long departed memory of childhood happiness.

Herrin controls the unfolding story very carefully, the slow sense of unease growing through the long lazy summer day of Act One, building to an edge-of-your-seat tension as the drama unfolds in Act Two and Three. With Death of a Salesman opening soon, and two of Hollywood’s finest actors making a welcome and impressive West End debut here in All My Sons, spring is proving to be quite the treat for Miller fans. With compelling performances from the four leads this production of All My Sons fulfils its promise, a gripping Miller tragedy that concludes with a lasting sense of devastation.

All My Sons is at the Old Vic until 8 June with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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