Tag Archives: Colin Morgan

A Number – Bridge Theatre

A Number - Bridge Theatre (by Johan Persson)

The Bridge Theatre is having far greater success with revivals than it has with new plays, and no problem attracting talented cast and crew to star in them. Both of its immersive Shakespeare productions – Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – have been excellent, while big productions are on the programme for later in the year including wunder-director Marianne Elliott’s version of They Shoot Horses Don’t They and Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman. First though, the Bridge joins both the National Theatre and, as of last week, the Donmar Warehouse in celebrating the work of Caryl Churchill with a short but superb performance of A Number.

It’s notable that two theatres have chosen to stage One Act pieces that, unusually in our era of three-hour-plus marathons, stand alone allowing audiences to be well on their way home by 8.30pm. Far Away at just 45-minutes practically feels over before it has even begun, while here at the Bridge, A Number is just an hour long. Perhaps surprisingly given ticket prices of up to £55, nothing else is scheduled alongside it, with both venues choosing to allow the singular work to speak for itself. It may not feel like value for money based on time spent in the auditorium, but in this case Churchill’s play is definitely small but mighty.

Yet, her work can have a marmite quality, creating quite divisive effects on audiences, so much of the time either you get it or you don’t. But A Number is one of her most straightforward pieces, a fairly simple narrative about a family discovering their eldest son has been cloaned. While the science-fiction surface is an examination of the effects of science on society, a premise Churchill uses to think about the apocalyptic nature of man’s own self-destructive impulses, A Number is really about lies. Across just five scenes, the writer explores the nature of deceit as a father (Salter) betrays his sons in several different ways as information about the true circumstances of their birth and early life is drip-fed to both men and the audience.

It is a clever and well executed premise, one designed to wrong-foot the audience at every turn, opening with an affectionate conversation between father and son taking place soon after the latter has discovered that clones exist. This first scene suggests a terrible miscarriage of justice in which an unknown other has effectively stolen cells from the boy and used them to make unauthorised replicas now living openly and blindly in the world, unaware of each other’s existence. Nothing about this early interaction is suspicious and it seems that Churchill’s intention may be to examine the faceless demands of scientific progress that harvest humanity’s innocence for nefarious purposes.

But that is only half the story and it soon becomes apparent in Polly Findlay’s thriller-like staging that nothing is quite what it seems in this household. A similar tactic occurs in Far Away with book-ended scenes set in a familiar domestic normality that hides (and lies about) the seamier activities beneath the surface, where the corruption of innocence is a major theme. The same occurs in A Number as the son referred to as B2 is forced to know more of his father’s choices as well as the existence of his duplicates which has terrible consequences.

Findlay quite effectively uses a square-shaped rotating set to explore the play’s themes with each new scene set at a 90 degree angle to the one before. In doing so, the audience sees every perspective on the single room in which the entire piece is set, and crucially, each of the four walls that provide the limitations to this domestic sphere in which Salter has maintained a bounded span of control for some years. Designed by Lizzie Clachan the room is exceptionally normal, a living room / diner filled with soft furnishings, family photos and some tiger prints on the wall, all warmed by a bar fire, and unlike previous adaptations that veered towards the clinical, this is a domesticated tragedy in progress. Churchill is interested in the casual monstrousness that lurks beneath the chintzy surface of suburbia, the banality  or perhaps more appropriately the thoughtlessness of evil.

Findlay and Clachan’s rotating set does two important things, it changes the audience’s perspective as each new scene brings further revelation that build into a clearer picture of the people it concerns. So by the end of the play we have seen the room and the circumstances of family life from every angle. But it also reinforces the much discussed effect of cloning in which the created being is the same but different. Salter is asked by each of his children about comparisons with their brothers, and we see they are quite different personalities in the same form. And so it is with the rotated set, what we see in each scene is the same room from a different perspective, creating an increasingly disorientating effect as the story unfolds.

Findlay’s control of the tone is particular impressive, there is something unnerving about the scientific discussions being had in this bland and unexpected environment in the first scene, yet the affectionate relationship between the men seems genuine, encouraging us to feel concerned that their rights have somehow been violated. Over time, Findlay changes the temperature introducing darker notes that build into something far more sinister as the result of the initial revelation is felt across the play. As each new slant is revealed, the mood shifts with it, so worry turns to desperation, anger and foreboding as Churchill slowly and often unceremoniously reveals one crucial revelation in each scene. The return of the room to its original position in scene five is a reset in every sense, with what now seems so clearly a cycle of hope and destruction ominously about to begin again.

At the centre of A Number is the ambiguous figure of Salter, a man who seems racked with concern for the pain his sons newly endure and whose initial instincts are to comfort while demanding legal justice for the misuse of his son’s DNA. Yet, it is never entirely clear whether Salter is telling the truth or why he tells the specific lies he chooses, so many he can barely keep track of them; which son is the original, the fate of his wife, his knowledge of the cloning process and the exact chronology of his son’s childhood are all subject to interpretation as he continues to give deliberately evasive responses. He appears to lack any genuine remorse for his mendacity and there are also suggestions of cruelty to B1 whose night terrors he ignores, a child that Salter decides is not up to scratch by the age of four and simply replaces with an improved copy.

Yet, Salter is also sympathetic, a father desperate for a second chance to put things right – an outcome at the start of the play he appears to have achieved as he and B2 express a mutual love for one another and happy life to date. Salter’s later confrontation with his original son B1 leads to revelations of grief at the death of his wife and a loneliness that haunts the play as a father grapples with his own positive legacy, a need to create a good relationship with his son to guarantee his own future. The momentary pauses between the five scenes which leaves Salter alone in each room configuration offer a contemplative pause, a man isolated and perhaps even abandoned with little left to lose.

The pairing of Roger Allam and Colin Morgan is a savvy one, two dedicated and respected theatre actors who have found a valuable chemistry well ahead of this week’s press night. Allam easily connects with the many conflicting layers within Salter’s character, he is at once a man trying to find a good outcome from past mistakes and someone who lies with astonishing ease. Under pressure, Allam’s Salter runs on, saying almost anything to dilute the confrontation and his culpability for the existence of multiple children, Allam ever treading that fine line between selfishness and parental love by mixing half-truths and outright lies with genuine emotion and bewilderment.

The audience never quite knows if Salter is a good man led astray by grief and a good sales pitch decades before, selling the soul of his child to answer some deep call of fatherhood, or a mercenary man using a disarming scattiness, a failure to remember exact details to malevolently excuse himself from blame while perhaps willfully bringing about a wider destruction to rid himself of the problem. Allam is careful to offer both interpretations within his performance, that keeps the audience guessing about his real motives.

As his antagonist throughout, Colin Morgan offers an equally layered presentation of character, rising to the challenge of playing three different versions of the same man. In each of the five scenes, Morgan alternates between personas, changing accents from two variations of London to play B1 and B2 as each man separately confronts Salter. And it is a play that wastes no time, with Churchill introducing the characters post-revelation requiring the actors to begin mid-argument, already at a pitch of exasperation and confusion.

Each man is given distinction by Morgan with B2 the nervy innocent, trying to accept the new-found truth about his cloned-selves and, at first, trusting his father’s explanation with a credulousness that is increasingly naive. The confounded approach hardens in Morgan’s creation of B1 who introduces an important note of latent violence, of the possibility of physical harm as he intimidates the father who betrayed him. Each of the characters is given two scenes so Morgan finds consistency in his characterisation, switching between them relatively quickly as the responses of both men to their father creates further tension once the brothers become aware of each other’s existence. The subtle hints of the Cain and Abel struggle in Churchill’s work and man’s desire to be somehow individually unique are brilliantly elucidate by Morgan in a varied and gripping performance.

A Number packs a lot of themes, meaning and ideas into just an hour of stage time in a production that asks big questions about scientific progress, human regeneration, parenting and legacy. Churchill is concerned here with the mysteries lurking beneath a sheen of civilisation and how quickly things unravel once the veneer is shattered to reveal further deceits. With performances by two very fine stage actors, Findlay’s production asks us to look beyond the simple dichotomy of nature or nature because the advent of medical interventions into the reproductive process, designer babies and genetic modification leaves us wondering whether human individuality exists at all, and how do we control who we become?

A Number is at the Bridge Theatre until 14 March 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.


Translations – National Theatre

Translations - National Theatre (Catherine Ashmore)

In the same week that Ireland has voted to take an important new step in its history, Brian Friel’s masterpiece Translations opens at the National Theatre examining another crucial moment in the nation’s history – the point at which the might of English imperialism began to erode Ireland’s linguistic as well as its governmental freedom. While recent scholarship has attempted to re-examine the wider effects of Empire around the world, making a case for some of the its modernising benefits, Friel’s play is a reminder that such invasions can also decimate an entire culture.

Written in 1980 at the height of The Troubles, Translations may be set in 1833 but its portrait of the changing nature of occupation is still surprisingly prescient. And while the action is specific to Ireland, the British Army took much the same approach the world over; arrive relatively peaceably, engage local people to help them to learn native customs, before full subjugation, control and, crucially, the subsequent Anglicisation of the area – particularly notable in renaming settlements after existing British towns or translating them to something more pronounceable, anything to help the invaders feel at home.

In Friel’s play, the British army are in Baile Beag one hot summer on a cartographic mission to remap, and consequently, rename every village, road, stream and hill in the area bringing with it an inevitable concern with borders. Accompanying them after a long absence, Owen has been enlisted to act as a translator, returning to the village and to the house of his schoolmaster father Hugh and brother Manus who hold regular classes in Latin and Greek for the community. As Owen works on the new maps with friend Lieutenant Yolland, an attraction grows between the soldier and local farmhand Maire which they both imagine will provide them with escape, despite the language barrier, with serious consequences for the villagers and for the future of Anglo-Irish relations.

Ian Rickson’s engaging new production balances the personal and political extremely effectively, opening out the rich life of the Baile Beag inhabitants filled with a range of feelings and aspirations, along with the increasingly complex cultural clash between old and new, that will have significant etymological effects. It’s not a development that Friel treats as wholly good or bad, and Rickson maintains that balance between the romantic and social importance of traditional modes of living and an optimistic future envisioned not just in Owen’s hopes for a collaborative, cleaner, more ordered way of life heralded by his English companions, but also in Maire’s eagerness to reach the freedom of America.

And the play’s structure reflects Friel’s concern with the way in which sudden changes in wider circumstances can quickly alter the future of the individual. In the early part of the show, these alterations are largely positive as a series of characters arrive into the action. As the class meet in the schoolroom, setting the scene as well as establishing the range of relationships, we must anticipate the expected arrival of schoolmaster Hugh whose importance as a leader in the village, passing on his erudition is contrasted by the permanently drunk and dishevelled figure who eventually arrives, but who is clearly trusted and admired by his pupils.

Owen’s wide-eyed return which follows is a surprise to the audience, and, having never been mentioned, we must get to know him only from what we see of his actions in the story and never from other character reports. It is a moment of happiness for all in which Owen is buoyed by the knowledge that he brings the future with him, while finally the arrival of soldiers Lancey and Yolland are starkly imposing, their red coats a beacon among the earthier colours of Baile Beag, while their friendliness suggests a peaceable mapping party who will soon be gone.

With so many arrivals, the third and final act must rebalance with a series of departures that drive the plot, and Rickson creates a notable shift in tone, suggesting something much darker, and more desperate, almost melancholic as the action, and its consequences, begin to play out. It feels considerably more dangerous, immersed in the tension-breaking rain that is always a feature of a Tennessee Williams conclusion, and bringing a multi-faceted concept of physical, emotional and geographical destruction. And while the play ends rather abruptly, you feel that Friel deliberately wanted to demonstrate a snapshot in time rather than neatly packaged story, knowing that all of the characters have unwittingly contributed to a very different kind of future for themselves, and for Ireland than beckons at the start of Act One.

While these strands of political and social history are clearly there, Friel insisted that Translations is a ‘a play about language, and here there are further complexities to uncover. Although all the actors speak in English (except where they quote Greek and Latin during their lessons) it soon becomes apparent that within the action of the play they cannot understand each other. Instead the audience is asked, quite convincingly, to believe that the Irish characters are largely speaking Gaelic and the soldiers English, with very little comprehension between the two. Owen’s deliberate mis-translations are a source of much of the play’s humour which is well managed here, while Friel equally never flags the times when the spoken language is exchanged mid-scene, for example when Manus and Hugh speak English with Lancey and Yolland, adding to the tension and sense of alienation between the two sides.

This focus represents the play’s central debate about the association of language and identity, and the extent to which ideas of modernity and standardisation are tantamount to cultural whitewashing. In the renaming of local landmarks around Baile Beag (which itself becomes Ballybeg), we see not just the systematic loss of native folklore but, sometimes quite humorously, the erosion of a more poetic sound for a clunky English replacement, as Hugh complains later in the play. But, there is balance in this argument with Owen making the case that regional names are based on impractical and unscientific stories no one can even remember, and Maire dreams of learning English as escape from the suffocation she feels at home. Friel leaves it to the audience to decide whether the replacement of Gaelic is a travesty or the inevitable Darwininan phasing-out of a dead language akin to Greek and Latin. Do the benefits of world-wide English outweigh the destruction of regional identities?

Spanning these two worlds Colin Morgan’s Owen arrives full of wonder at the home he left years before. Noting the lack of change, his delight at returning is amplified by a sense that he’s bringing progress in his wake, improving the lives of the people he once left behind. Morgan gives Owen an openness and a schoolboy enthusiasm for the work he’s undertaken with the British Army that allow him to act as friend to both sides, but there’s clearly an underlying pride in the beauty of his homeland that drives him to promote the beneficial effect he feels his work will have for the area and its people.

Clinging to his personal roots as a teacher’s son, his work is based on a scholarly rigour and understanding of both languages but as the action unfolds Morgan charts the problematic clash between two different worlds that marks a significant shift in his own character. His reabsorption into local life reawakens latent sympathies that in Act Three suggest Owen’s certainty has curdled and his own ambiguous final moments imply quite a different direction. Having brought the wolf to the door, Morgan’s Owen suggests he must now fortify his home for the greater battle to come.

Like his son, Ciarán Hinds schoolmaster Hugh arrives a little way into the play, and though implied to be a fearsome and academic man, his rowdy love of drink and ramshackle appearance contrast his reputation. Revered and even loved by his community, at the start of the play Hugh faces a bright future with a job leading the new National School and a visible elation at seeing his son again. But the ever-excellent Hinds brings a deep emotionality to the role of a man who can quote reams of classical scholarship and interchange between four languages with ease but needs something more to sustain him.

Hinds suggests a difficult relationship with son Manus, while the arrival of Owen, although tearful, brings with it suspicion and a shrewder understanding of its consequences than the villagers can distinguish. Of all the characters, Hugh is most alive to the destructive march of progress and in a captivating late monologue Hinds holds the audience in his palm with a moving discussion about the loss of customs and identity, where even a beautifully constructed language is unable to resist the changes of circumstance that will mark its end. It’s a very fine performance from an actor of substantial skill, bringing light and shade to a man who has spent his life with one foot in the past.

It is the villagers who open the show and this National Theatre production has created a warmly convincing community of individuals with distinct needs and concerns who discuss the fears of potato blight as easily as Greek gods. First among them is Judith Roddy’s Maire who dreams of a better life and believes that education is her path to freedom. Maire’s uncertain relationship with Manus (Seamus O’Hara) is quickly overthrown by an attraction to Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun) that Roddy makes entirely credible, sweet and sometimes comic as the pair fail to communicate. O’Hara’s Manus is more restrained but there is a sense of deep feeling raging beneath his closed exterior, personally and professionally frustrated, an approach that can make him hot-headed and even cruelly dismissive of the more fragile emotions of those around him.

This is particularly poignant for Sarah, played sensitively by Michelle Fox, a mute girl that Manus is teaching to speak and who is clearly in love with him and has a notable role to play in the action. Dermot Crowley’s tramp-like Jimmy Jack Cassie excels in education and becomes a verbose drinking companion for Hugh, speaking to each other in Latin and Greek – that only adds an additional nonsense to the soldier’s assumption that locals are uneducated and worthy of conquest. Rufus Wright’s Captain Lancey is an ominous presence even when attempting conciliation, while Edun’s Yolland makes for a convincingly lover, someone desperate to find a community and place to feel at home with which he equates Maire’s attraction to him.

After a couple of disappointing productions (Macbeth and Nightfall), Rae Smith’s set creates multiple levels for the characters to inhabit, and, while a tad caricatured, there is a sense of private and public lives happening in different rooms and changing weather across the expansive farmlands beyond the schoolroom – the National does love to fill the Olivier stage with dirt. But Translations is not a play that particularly needs much dressing and Rickson maintains an intellectual engagement with the text, allowing the conversations to draw out the political, cultural and historical aspects of Friel’s debate. It’s well paced, allowing the individuality and emotional arc of the characters to emerge, and for the audience to care, while keep the momentum across the two and half hours that flies by.

After a disappointing year in the Olivier with only Follies to write home about, Translations will be a much-needed success for the National. Friel’s interest in emerging identities and the fragility of local tradition will always feel relevant as political shifts and globilisation challenge our concepts of national boundaries. And while there has been so much focus on the political ramifications of what it means to be British in the twenty-first century, Ireland has spent centuries fighting hard to retain its own identity. As the country moves into a new era, Friel’s play remains at the heart of debate – how can a country maintain its essence while embracing the modern world?

Translations is at the National Theatre until 11 August. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1    


Film Review: Testament of Youth

Female perspectives on the First World War are relatively few and of these Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is the most famous. Published in 1929 among a spate of disillusioned memoirs from former veterans, Brittain’s story is one of love, pitiable loss and an insight into a total war which also affected the millions of people left behind. One of the interesting criticisms from former Servicemen after the Armistice, is that the statues and memorials erected all over the country pandered primarily to a particular female grief – the wives, the mothers and daughters who have no grave to mourn over – and they felt little connection to a respectable form of public commemoration that felt so far from the war they had experienced.

Nonetheless Brittain’s memoir remains a gateway into the female experience and has been filmed on a number of occasions, but nowhere better than in this beautiful and emotional-affecting film by Juliette Towhidi, directed by James Kent. This is British film-making at its best, in some sense harking back to the glory days of Merchant Ivory productions and in the opening scenes particularly to A Room With A View. We see Vera in the midst of a tantrum because her father has brought her a piano –what a monster – and it is left to her brother Edward to calm her down. There is a lovely affection between them that is reminiscent of Lucy and Freddy in Forster’s tale, and their relationship, which feels very genuine, becomes one of the important pillars of the film as war begins.

Into this situation comes Roland Leighton and over the course of several days he and Vera begin to fall for one another. But it isn’t hurried and a fair amount of time is spent building up their connection, showing the dates where they humorously try to evade the maiden aunt chaperon and they’re unable to do more than hold hands for a moment. It is this restraint that is so lovely and, as war begins to encroach (shown only via newspaper columns and billboards), it gives more power to the Brief Encounter like train station departure when Roland leaves for war. You also get a sense of how young they are particularly as Edward, Roland and their friend Victor muck about in the fields near the Brittain home, a scene repeated as a memory a few times later in the film when war has forced them to grow-up very quickly.

Some reviewers have complained that the war scenes needed more visions of combat to give emotional heft to the film but I disagree. This is Vera’s memoir and it is about her war, so the focus on what she does is paramount and extremely well executed here. The images of the war we see link to descriptions in letters from Edward and Roland, and are actually all the more powerful for appearing amid domestic life and her early duties as a nurse. In one scene we hear a letter from Edward’s friend Geoffrey describing a peaceful moment at the front, where the sun reflected in the muddy pools of No Man’s Land leads Geoffrey to believe there is something bigger than the war, which gives him comfort. The scene is visualised for us and is a stunning image, like a Paul Nash painting, the ruined trees and craters given a golden tint that seems not only peaceful but hopeful.

Although seen through Vera’s eyes one of the big successes of this film is the male characters never seem deluded about war or in any way unwilling to fight it. It is rare for a film about this conflict to show men in this more nuanced way, making them seem like rational, intelligent people who made a choice that for all the horror they will stand by. This building of character and time spent at the beginning of the film to create proper investment in the various relationships makes the losses more potent when they come. Vera hears of Roland’s death on the very day she is dressed for their wedding, it’s painfully sad and Alicia Vikander is at her best as the bewildered Brittain alone on the beach starring into the sea – the decision not to include any crass ‘mood-music’ is a brilliant one and all you hear are the waves. The scene too when his family receive a parcel only to find the War Office has sent home his kit, covered in mud, is absolutely devastating and a real insight into the suffering at home.

In the last section of the film Vera goes to the Western Front to tend the wounded and it is here that the consequences of war are starkly seen, but I’ll leave you to find out what happens to everyone else she knows. At one point during a battle the camera pulls away from the ground leaving Vera standing among endless rows of harmed men on stretchers that gently nods to the white crosses of the cemeteries of France and Belgium. Testament of Youth is a great First World War film, full of excellent performances from the likes of Dominic West, as Vera’s father overcome by events, Colin Morgan as the forlorn Victor, and surprisingly Game of Thrones’s Kit Harington as Roland, displaying considerably more backbone and character than the wet John Snow (or Snore). But it is Vikander who dominates as a female voice on the experience and suffering of war. As the Armistice is declared and the British public crowd the streets in celebration, Vera makes her way through the crowd unable to share their joy and more aware than most of what it cost. A great film and a timely reminder.

Testament of Youth was shown at the London Film Festival and is due for general release on 16 January 2015.


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