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The Shape of Things – Park Theatre

For much of Neil LaBute’s 2001 play, receiving its latest revival at the Park Theatre, it seems like a story from a long gone era inspired by those defining but now socially problematic high school movies in which some infeasibly uncool girl – and it was almost always a girl – is transformed from ugly duckling to swan and then accepted by the popular kids, thus able to date the lead attractive boy who has long been her unrequited desire. From Grease to She’s All That, the message has always been that being conventionally attractive and dressed to fit in is the only way a geeky girl will find love. LaBute’s play is from the same period, only it turns the tables, placing a nerdy boy at the centre of the make-over drama, encouraged by the trendy and devoted art student he meets in the campus museum where he volunteers. But The Shape of Things also takes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as its inspiration with a story that only truly begins to make sense at the very end.

The Shape of Things contrasts the experience of two couples, the new relationship between Adam and Evelyn, as well as the long-term connection between Adam’s friends Jenny and Phillip who are engaged. The extent to which they accept each other’s foibles and character traits creates drive in the play, and as Adam starts to transform for love, it puts equivalent pressure on his friends to re-examine their commitment to one another and what they are all prepared to endure to be with another person. That some crossover occurs in this four character play feels inevitable and LaBute concocts a scenario in which a latent feeling exists between Adam and Jenny that the former was never confident enough to broach before Jenny entered into a serious commitment to his best friend. But what LaBute does with this structure later in the play creates the interest even when the scenes themselves are sparsely drawn.

Other aspects of LaBute’s play are, in many respects, deeply conventional as well and may seem a little lightweight as this tale is unfolding, needfully so if its conclusion is to work effectively. The Shape of Things is framed as a traditional rom com, opening with a distinctive and quirky meet-cute in front of a male statue that art student Evelyn is about to deface with a can of paint, her objection, the censorship of his nude form concealed by a fig leaf installed by an earlier and more prudish generation. They invariably fall in love, begin to date and shy Adam learns to make the most of himself, growing in confidence under Evelyn’s influence. Changes to his hair and clothes are quickly followed by shifts in his posture, sexual confidence and self-belief as he becomes the swan that Evelyn encourages him to be. His friends notice the difference and leads to the play’s central tensions as they struggle to accept his new image and the woman that inspired it. Much of what the audience observes is throwaway moments or comments, LaBute plays them down, the concerns of four people with little to worry about except Adam’s new hair which the playwright implies are unimportant even as his characters argue about it. The seeming vacuity only grows as their relationships develop and a new version of Adam emerges.

As a theatrical experience these are minor scenes, a series of small things taking place over the 2 hour and 10-minute period of the play in which the new couple seem to grow only stronger and happier in Adam’s transformation while Phillip and Jenny start to question why they accept each other’s failings so readily and, more importantly, why they cannot get the other to change. Watching the play in some senses is a pleasant if unremarkable deja vu, we’ve seen all of this before in the many similar dramas that have covered this same ground. Yet, LaBute is quite purposeful in seeding this collection of activities, this is deliberate writing, coasting on the knowledge of his audience’s preconceptions and the cliches that start to form as the story unfolds. The simplicity of it, the sparsity in the writing is controlled, creating a surface impression, a shape as the title implies, that belies what is happening underneath as one version of the story is slowly manipulated into a different kind of reality.

As Adam completes his trajectory in the build up to his finale, so too does the story. LaBute has shown the audience everything we need to see at this point and the final portion of the story recasts that, with even the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential moments taking on a different resonance as a new version of events takes centre stage. And there is still sufficient surprise in this ending to want to conceal it even 20 years after it was first performed. New audiences need to go through Adam’s experience with him and then understand the impact of LaBute’s conclusion along with the character.

Director Nicky Allpress’s production for the Park Theatre never tries to anticipate what that outcome might be and it is an important audience management decision if the full impact of LaBute’s work is to take effect, allowing scenes to ebb smoothly from one into the next as the extremes of Adam’s love for Evelyn take him further away from the man he once was. There is no particular sense of foreboding in the production either, no knowing sense of what is to come, preventing the audience from reading anything into the way Allpress and the cast present scenes, so the viewer takes them at face value, just as Adam and his friends do, watching the Adam’s growing love for Evelyn willingly recondition him.

There is a movie-like quality to this play (which was subsequently adapted) filled with relatively short scenes and regularly changing scenarios that take the story quickly to different points in time as the characters move from weeks to months together, and Allpress maintains the pace and flow of these transitions that make the running time pass very quickly. Much of this is aided by Peter Butler’s minimalist stage design, a simple furniture structure with plain white backdrop that doubles as a seat and concealed cupboards for changes of clothes and some of the props that aid rapid scene transitions. Many of the locations are implied, so the show moves easily from the museum opener to Jenny and Phillip’s house and a variety of external meeting places where this story plays out.

And Butler retains a turn-of-the-century aesthetic in the costumes with no attempt to update the play to the modern day. Part of the mystery of the show relies on it taking place in a pre-Smart Phone era with no social media which gives the finale its impact, so Allpress’s production embraces the style of its period setting and the high school movie allusions that come with it. The only significant change is to add an interval, something LaBute instructed against when he directed the original production at the Almeida Theatre, and here it seems a strange addition, making the first section only 45-minutes long, taking the story through the establishment of the central relationship and to most of the change measures that Adam has adopted.

But the nature of the play doesn’t require an interval, running at around 1 hour and 50-minutes, the length of a movie. And the additional pause creates an opportunity for the the audience to reflect too soon on what they are seeing, a reasonably unremarkable love story at this point that, given the deliberately withheld nature of the plot, and means they may not fully understand that there is more to come. It also disrupts the tightly woven dynamic that the writer has purposefully created in the play, a growing interplay of the things people do to themselves for love, the ways in which we create Frankenstein’s monsters of each other, the conceptual discussions of what art is and its political purpose, of suppression and control, as well as reflections on human behaviour that underpin the action of the play. LaBute wants these to inform each other, to build uninterrupted, yet this production breaks them up with an unnecessary breather early in the story.

Luke Newton makes a rare stage appearance as Adam, a role that is easily the most interesting and challenging in the play, undergoing a complete physical and personal overhaul by degrees during the show. What begins as a very astute character role evolves into a more accomplished and stylish persona in Newton’s neatly played comic performance that takes Adam from corduroy-wearing nerd with centre parting and an inhibited manner to a young man at ease with himself, even arrogant about his newly realised physical attractiveness. Newton’s character also blurs some moral boundaries, becoming close to Jenny and distancing himself from his friends as his new relationship consumes him and there is a nicely managed trajectory from Newton who shows Adam grateful and hungry for Evelyn’s attention and nervous of disappointing her to an near arrogance that jettisons much of his former life to subsume himself within his new persona.

Amber Anderson’s Evelyn is a very difficult character to play in some ways and LaBute gives the actor very little on the page. She typifies the ‘cool girl’ character tropes that a lot of 90s teen movies perpetuated. She dresses well, is confident and easy going about sex, devoted to the boy she is dating, seemingly putting his needs above her own and yet is compliant and forgiving when required to be. Evelyn is never placid exactly but she is agreeable, supportive and unphased which can make her seem almost bland in the surface presentation of the story. But Anderson gets to show more of her range in the finale that adjusts and explains some of those behaviours, with a coldness that makes her, eventually, much more rounded.

Supporting roles Jenny played by Carla Harrison-Hodge and Majid Mehdizadeh-Valoujerdy’s Phillip also have very little to them, a couple less well suited to one another as the story unfolds but who cling to the habit of their well-established connection. Harrison-Hodge develops some chemistry with Newton which adds a bit of colour to her role, but these characters exist in service of LaBute’s overall vision and, though briefly present, a conclusion that barely includes them at all. If audiences stay the course with this play there is a mighty pay-off and the presence of Newton in the cast ensures they probably will. With press night later this week, the play’s age and low-key build-up may not satisfy everyone, but it still has a few tricks up its sleeve.

The Shape of Things is at the Park Theatre until the 1 July with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Aspects of Love – Lyric Theatre

With the return of Aspects of Love to the West End for the first time in decades, Michael Ball continues a professional journey back through the shows that made him. Starting with the Les Miserables Staged Concert in 2019 in which Ball took on the role of Javert and then to Hairspray in 2021 with Ball once again playing Edna Turnblad, the decision to revisit another of his early formative productions, albeit in another role, and the song with which he is still most associated – Love Changes Everything – seems part of a particular trajectory through the roles and music that have shaped his career. Aspects of Love is based on a English novella by David Garnett written in the 1950s, an episodic and sweeping narrative that starts with a love triangle which then becomes a square and possibly a hexagon with people swapping lovers while keeping far too much of it in the family.

As an Andrew Lloyd Webber sung-through musical with lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart, this show has always had its problems, several of which have delayed revivals while other Lloyd Webber musicals have found a different resonance in recent years in the hands of a new generation of directors. Aspects of Love was revived in both 2010 at the Menier Chocolate Factory and at Southwark Playhouse in 2019 but has never seemed able to overcome its problematic source material about a collection of slightly icky love affairs. Large age gaps between consenting adults may be a feature of literature from Jane Austen’s Mr Knightly and Emma to Daphne Du Maurier’s Max de Winter and his second wife, but with Aspects of Love placing impressionable teenagers in the mix who form attachments to people decades older than they are, writers may have got away that in the 1950s and even when the musical first appeared in the 1980s, but with a much greater understanding of sexual power and coercion, it feels considerably more uncomfortable now.

A feature of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows, there is a tendency to overuse the same refrain, limiting the score to a few melodies that recur often throughout the show just with different lyrics. Aspects of Love is perhaps one of the worst offenders with the music for Love Changes Everything, Anything But Lonely, The First Man You Remember and particularly Seeing is Believing repeated often throughout the show. These four songs alone make up the majority of the score and they are lush, beautiful, romantic melodies that have a considerable life of their own beyond this musical, appearing frequently in concerts, albums and cabaret evenings, but they are the backbone of the 2.5 hour production so expect to hear them often.

Jonathan Kent’s revival running at the Lyric Theatre has, then, had some hard thinking to do about how to manage a dubious plot line in the Second Act and how to deliver a story that travels from Paris to a villa in Pau and later to Venice while keeping track of its characters interwoven love lives for nearly 20-years. Set designer John McFarlane has developed a creative solution to the rapidly changing locations using a combination of multiple revolving discs in the centre of the performance space, a moving fly screen that travels across the stage and a series of projected painterly backdrops and screens that create the impression of the verdant countryside at the villa which appeals to each of the characters in turn.

There is something of Sunday in the Park with George about the approach here with McFarlane working closely with video designer Douglas O’Connell to project artistic renderings of key backdrops that suit both the period setting which ranges from the late 1940s to the 1960s, and the chief occupation of Uncle George, a celebrated painter, and main love interest Rose, an actor. At the villa O’Connell projects dense impressionistic painted foliage stretching for miles, providing the substance behind McFarlane’s minimalist staging, just a suggestion of doors and a piece of furniture or two to imply the scale and perfect situation of the villa. The moving fly screen guides the audience to new locations, onto which O’Connell projects impressions of city life for Paris, pigeons for St Mark’s Square and an assortment of mountain scenes when returning to Pau.

And sometimes this creates absorbing impressions as trees and vegetation grow across the stage, filling what is a large space with a feeling of abundant nature as Rose and Alex first fall in love at the start of the story. Occasionally a semi-transparent front curtain is used to give depth to the projections – similar to Akram Khan’s Jungle Book: Reimagined at Sadler’s Wells – in which different animation appears at the front and back of the stage to add extra romanticism. But domestic scenes are not neglected; George’s Italian sculptor lover Giulietta is given a magnificent room overlooking the Venetian canals largely created by O’Connell’s painterly images, while George’s own Paris flat is beautifully implied and well appointed with a tasteful street-scene sketch through an expensive-looking window.

Arguably the early scenes in Paris in Rose’s dressing room and at the bar she takes Alex too seem a little flat, large black spaces that make the production seem semi-staged at first. There are nice touches including a moving train carriage as the early lovers escape to the country and clearly the creative team are saving the splendor for later in the show, but these early sections slightly suffer, looking a little lost on the large stage. But through these scene changing tools, Kent is able to give the production an easy flow, actively gliding between scenes in moments as unobserved stage hands replace furniture and reposition props in the few moments it takes the moving fly to traverse the stage.

Aspects of Love is by nature a very ‘bitty’ story that looks at different relationship angels and several different menages a trois – Alex-George-Rose being the through-line but George-Rose-Giulietta as well as Alex-Rose and Rose’s daughter Jenny being a problematic addition. The show must also cover many years in the seconds between scenes, none of which is specifically announced in the songs or signaled in the staging, emerging through the action and costume (also by McFarlane) and leaving the audience to work out the time elapsed and how characters align with one another since their last meeting.

Kent navigates all of that really well, creating just the right amount of sweep, capturing the light-heartedness of these changing love affairs, particularly among the artistic characters who trade partners easily and seem to fall in and out of love quite as soon as someone else shows an interest in them. But there is also a sense of the deep impression that love makes on the individuals, the intensity of youthful infatuation that shapes Alex in particular in which the memory of first love is forever intermingled with the villa location and his feeling for Rose even years later. There’s a really strong contrast between the wildness and irresponsibility of young love, an imagined, romantic and impractical feeling that can only last a moment and the more adult grounded affection that exists between Rose and George, an affection that is somehow more accepting of the failings and needs of the other.

And so to the more complex question of Jenny and her troublesome relationship with much older cousin Alex. There have been some important changes to this story but the subplot has not been reworked completely (or arguably enough) with several important consequences. Much of the original concept is retained, Alex watches Jenny grow up and is tempted by her ardent affection for him, one which she shamelessly flaunts in front of her parents. The second part of the show explores the corruption of love and the darker, more complicated desires it evokes – impulses that make Alex’s character, now around 35 years old, quite murky. The audience knows by this point that he has already had a long obsessive affair with Jenny’s mother that was consummated, he and Jenny are first cousins and he has played a semi-parental role in her upbringing, living with them since she was 12 years old. Alex does resist for a while but it is definitely icky.

None of this is altered in this updated production, but Kent and his team have made some amendments to the scenario, making Jenny slightly older than in Garnett’s version at the point her infatuation declares itself and excising the final song, putting an alternative and more ambiguous ending in its place. It goes some way to addressing the deep-rooted issues in the plot but the result is to make Alex less sympathetic, no longer a lost boy still reeling from losing his first great love and turns him instead into an untrustworthy and slightly seedy rogue, led, as Jenny explains, by his physical needs above any true emotional commitment to the women he pursues or to the romantic ideals of a true love he once espoused. Is the show now saying that love is something grubby, miserable and ruinous? The message is less clear than it once was, but Alex is certainly no boyish hero.

Michael Ball’s return to this production is the main draw of course and one received with raptures by a delighted audience when it is George and not Alex who is given the chance to sing Love Changes Everything. An exquisite vocalist as always, Ball’s powerful vibrato reverberates around the auditorium. Not belted out with a passionate longing this time but a more somber reflection on a mature feeling and contentment that George discovers early in the show. Ball anchors the piece with a performance that allows the other characters to move around him. George is a man happy to take life as it comes, enjoy the pleasures where they exist and not expect too much from others or himself, but he grows across the years of the story and Ball charts his settling down to the comforts of a happy home life, a soulful existence in the countryside with his family and an ultimate goodness that create a big impression on those around him.

Laura Pitt Pulford is also perfectly cast as Rose, a woman driven by her career but also the desire for a comfortable life. Rose’s motivations remain open to interpretation in Pitt Pulford’s performance, is she truly in love with Alex and George as she claims and perhaps even convinces herself she is, or does she choose the most comfortable option with the better long-term prospects? There are faults in the story but Rose’s character isn’t one of them, she is complicated and varied, changes her mind, finds strength in herself, gets swept up and finds her own way all at once and Pitt Pulford gives her lots of really interesting and convincing dimensions. Vocally outstanding, her renditions of Seeing is Believing and Anything But Lonely are a particular delight.

John Bogyo’s Alex is now far more ambiguous as a result of the changes made to this production and altered perceptions of male sexual power in the world that has since developed around the show. Bogyo certainly captures Alex’s youthful verve, the adoration of Rose and the impression this formative love affair has on him. He ages up well later in the show and while the forbidden feeling for Jenny never entirely convinces, Bogyo navigates Alex’s flexible feelings well.  Danielle de Niese makes fine work of the breezy Giulietta, perhaps the character most at ease with her choices and certainly most realistic about the reality of human passion.

Has Aspects of Love been sufficiently reconcieved for the twenty-first century. Maybe not entirely. For those new to it, it is still a very strange and overlong show that skitters about between different places and times, with lots of very messy love affairs that for a while everyone is terribly casual about, but none are drawn in enough depth to really feel beneath the surface. Love does appear to matter an awful lot to everyone but Aspects of Love tells rather than shows it as it skims across the surface of these interconnected lives. This production does find an ugliness in the deeply uncomfortable romantic dilemma at its heart that is still treated perhaps too casually and makes some of the motivations in the second half of the show quite perplexing.

But none of this will deter audiences from enjoying the soaring music with its occasional Tchaikovsky accents and hearing those four big songs in their original context perhaps for the first time. A clever staging that has potential for touring and the continuation of Michael Ball’s journey back through the shows that made him will be more than enough to keep them watching.

Aspects of Love is at the Lyric Theatre until 11 November with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Brokeback Mountain – Soho Place

Brokeback Mountain - Soho Place

When the film Brokeback Mountain first appeared almost 20 years ago in 2005 it seemed like a revolution, two mainstream Hollywood names appearing in a film about a tender same sex love story between cowboys in the 1960s. Two decades on and that has all changed for the better. But the stage has always been way ahead of cinema in the presentation and acceptance of love in all its forms, and in a market spilling over with screen to stage transfers of largely 1980s and 90s films turned into big budget theatre musicals, it is a joy to see the intimacy and sensitivity of Ashley Robinson’s world premiere production of Brokeback Mountain at Soho Place which also marks the West End debuts of Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges. Alive with the tragedy of a love that can never be, Jonathan Butterell’s production will slowly break your heart.

“If you can’t fix it, you gotta take” is the sentiment that follows lovers Ennis and Jack through the wild passion of their early love affair and onto a more complicated existence as their lives away from each other over twenty years conspire to take them far beyond the simple solitude and contentment they found one summer on Brokeback Mountain. And while this production gives a clear sense that these men cannot be together openly – the restrictions of the era and the life-threatening beatings that gay men in this story are reported to suffer – the power in Robinson’s adaptation lies in minimising the external noise and focusing on the inability of Ennis and Jack to understand their feelings for one another and overcome an innate fear of what it might mean to be together, a chance for happiness they all but sacrifice as a result.

The audience knows from the start that there is a tragedy in this love story, told from the perspective of the older Ennis (Paul Hickey) who wakes alone, disheveled and reaching for a bottle, remembering the days of his youth. Robinson makes this an unspoken recognition, a character who stalks the stage but never narrates, lingering meaningfully on the edges of his own memories but only acknowleding who he is with a look at his younger self as the play begins. Its subtle but neatly done, and one of Robinson’s strongest gifts here is to recognise the moments when words are not enough, the playwright getting out of the way of the actors and giving them the silences to fill instead. In a text that is already quite spare, offering only the bare essentials, building that cumulative emotional impact in Brokeback Mountain requires a fine balance between different kinds of creative input and this company has found it.

The promotional text makes it clear this is based on Annie Proulx’s short story and not the film, but there is an unavoidably cinematic quality to this stage adaption. Running at only 90-minutes (45-minutes shorter than the movie) it is unusual for theatre to be structured around a series of short scenes that are more common on screen where the camera framing and use of close-ups can elicit a great deal from a few seconds of film. On stage that is harder to achieve particular for a story that spans so many years in the character’s lives, so Brokeback Mountain must build momentum and investment, toning down the existence of other characters to focus more exclusively on Ennis and Jack’s trajectory both together and apart, as well as savouring the longer term impact of their relationship in place of the instant gratification that film can offer at every encounter.

As a result, there are no lingering looks when the pair first meet and head up the mountain to tend sheep for a few weeks, instead there is a slightly frosty restraint emanating from Ennis in which the men barely exchange a word as they pass each other at their camp. Their first night together seems to happen from nowhere, as much a surprise to them as the audience, but it unleashes a torrent of repressed emotion that they give free reign to. Cinema would likely play a scenario like this quite differently, a shy start and a slow build up to a tentative romance, the consummation of that connection the end goal. But theatre can shift the emphasis onto the longer impacts and implication of this relationship, altering the perspective from the close-up to the long view to find its meaning.

Robinson and Butterell have managed that extremely well across this new production, making the emergence and sustenance of this feeling between Ennis and Jack the spine of the show, the depth of the emotion between them and the way in which it builds even as years pass and lots of activities and experiences occur around them is unfaltering. The writer and director are never distracted from the perspective of older Ennis looking back on the loneliness and emptiness of his life without Jack. This past conjured up for the audience essentially has a single track that is designed to inform the present, away from the tricks of cinema, the full impact of which in this theatre production can only be truly understood and felt at the end of the story.

The cinematic nature of this production is only enhanced by the addition of Dan Gillespie Sells’s music, played live and helping to set the mood and track the emotional pulse of the production. Performed by Eddi Reader playing the Balladeer along with her country and western band, these emotive original songs provide a ranging soundtrack with a depth and potency that integrates perfectly with the story, explaining and enhancing the emotional turbulence experienced by the characters. The music is a constant presence but it also feels deftly applied, providing support at just the right moments, a shorthand to enhance the tacit meaning beneath Robinson’s sparring dialogue and the retrained performances.

Staged on a simple but evocative set designed by Tom Pye, there is never any doubt that the action takes place in semi-rural America of small towns and bleak, isolated but potentially freeing landscapes. All of this is cleverly implied by Pye who stages in-the-round on a raised central platform into which bits of furniture can sink or emerge depending on whether the location is a domestic space or the empty landscape, providing a neat and smooth solution to a piece that often needs to move quickly between locations. This is surrounded by gravelly landscape where the Brokeback Mountain camp and other outdoor locations can be partially staged, more than enough to evoke the outdoors feel when needed, but suggesting the pressure of the landscape and the limited freedoms for its inhabitants even in town.

On a small stage Director Butterell eschews any elaborate staging but keeps the focus on the intimacy that grows between the two men using the scale of the auditorium to infer perspective as the landscape dwarfs them. At the same time, Butterell manages to fill this space with their story and the emotional connection between them that simultaneously shows the insignificance of two people but also their importance. Using all four entrance ways at the stalls level brings the story into the audience while the raised platform stage creates at least one more inventive way for characters to appear as if from nowhere that, as a directorial choice, maintains the theatrical spell.

While it is inevitable that some comparisons will be made with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s originating film performances when critics review the show later this week, Lucas Hedges and Mike Faist have made their show and these roles entirely their own. With previous stage experience in the US, this is an early opportunity to see two young stars on the rise and both are compelling, giving a sense of the quite different forces that bring them together as well as the sweep of decades as their characters mature from not very idealistic 20-somethings to men with responsibilities and financial pressures in their late 30s.

Hedges’s Ennis is the more brooding of the pair, a quiet, reserved man who says very little and barely acknowledges his emotions at all, and Ennis is actively trying to perform a particular archetype of cowboy masculinity that makes his feelings for Jack so difficult to manage. There is a gruff edge to Hedges’s approach that is forbidding at first, refusing to engage, which means he is taken by surprise on Brokeback Mountain. Over time Hedges’s charts Ennis’s struggle with maintaining a surface respectability and the deep, unavoidable feeling he harbours for Jack even years later and the constant conflict within the character, an inability to see himself clearly and to risk having the life he wants that ultimately becomes both tragic and moving.

Faist’s Jack by contrast is a live wire, bouncing around the stage with an early energy that suggests a comfort with himself and all the things he is that make him a complete contrast with Ennis’s repression. Jack is more responsive to his physical needs and although fearful of the dangers of living openly as a gay man, feels no shame or confusion within himself. Faist’s performance suggesting this is society’s problem and not Jack’s. Over time, Faist reveals the depth of the love that Jack feels for Ennis, an addiction of sorts but also a certainty that his lover denies him, with Jack more willing to make the leap to something substantial, making the life they could have had a bittersweet regret. And “If you can’t fix it, you gotta take it” becomes his pragmatic mantra.

While the boundaries between film and theatre are increasingly blurred, they are different experiences and require different techniques to convey their story. Film can use close-up and cutting techniques to create emotional investment in an instant while theatre must play the long-game and here this premiere production of Brokeback Mountain does that with considerable care, constructing an emotional connection with the audience that yields results as the show unfolds. Love on stage and screen certainly looks quite different now than it did twenty years ago but there is still a quiet power in the story of two men who couldn’t fix it and just had to endure.

Brokeback Mountain is at Soho Place until 12 August with tickets from £29.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

4000 Miles – Chichester Festival Theatre

4000 Miles - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

One of the major theatre casualties of the pandemic, Matthew Warchus’s revival of Amy Herzog’s 2011 play 4000 Miles was scheduled for April 2020 at the Old Vic. Tickets had sold in droves for the promised pairing of Dame Eileen Atkins and the hugely anticipated UK stage debut of Timothée Chalamet. But alas it was not to be, the Old Vic held on for more than two years hoping the production would form part of its reopening season but the huge success of Dune has taken Chalamet off to film part two and the theatre finally admitted defeat, refunding ticketholders and cancelling the performance entirely. But that isn’t quite the end of the story and Chichester Festival Theatre has given the show a new home as part of its Festival 2023 season with Richard Eyre now directing and Atkins attached. What this revival of 4000 Miles has lost in Hollywood glamour, it more than makes up for in the intimate immediacy of this new version staged in the Minerva space which is considerably smaller than the Old Vic. So what exactly is London missing out on?

Herzog’s play, first performed off-Broadway, is a lean piece and like a lot of modern US drama is rather spare in its construction, running at a tidy 95-minutes without interval. There is a muscularity in Herzog’s writing that takes some adjustment, based on an ordinary conversation style and the things that people say to each other in passing, rather than the more stagey revelations and reckonings that ordinarily shape family drama. This can make it hard for an audience to feel gripped by a story that slowly evolves rather than being more obviously directive. Instead, 4000 Miles has particularity, each word chosen with purpose even when it appears to be inconsequential, and truths emerge through lots of different conversations, each revealing a little more about why Leo has suddenly appeared at his grandmother’s door in the middle of the night having cycled thousands of miles from home.

This is a snapshot in time, several weeks in which the pair live together, and Herzog makes it clear that there are detailed and complex aspect to both of their lives before the action begins which continue beyond the end of the play. Although both have been heard, nothing is neatly resolved, the characters must go on living with what they have done and in circumstances that have not been materially altered by the events of this period. Once the audience accepts the parameters of Herzog’s drama, there is much to mine within it.

The realisation may take a while to come but 4000 Miles is about two people who need one another but barely acknowledge it in their determined but also semi-enforced independence. Vera lives alone in an apartment block in Manhatten, a spacious place with two bedrooms and, it is hinted, a view downtown where the Twin Towers used to be. Her husband died a few years before and her main contact with the outside world are phone calls with an absent daughter and the neighbour opposite of equivalent age, as well as attending the funerals of her octogenarian friendship group. Leo meanwhile is actively separating himself from his closest relatives following an incident at the family home a few months before and an accident involving his cycling companion, leaving him emotionally stranded and seeking a non-judgmental port in which to ride out whatever storm afflicts him. Eyre’s production for Chichester Festival Theatre is effective at revealing this mutual need that both Vera and Leo treat incredibly casually, refusing to accept or recognise its full importance to them.

There is some mileage in the connection between alternate generations and while Leo and Vera report a troubled relationships with Leo’s mother who stands between them quite decisively without ever appearing in the play, grandmother and grandson share a political interest in Cuba and communist priniciples – not ideas that the writer elaborates in the more lifelike as-it-happens nature of 4000 Miles, but Eyre’s approach emphasises the unforced commonalities between the generations here, better able to understand and accept one another, perhaps even facing the same demons or wanting the same things from the world. Herzog is not the only writer to consider the grandparent-grandchild connection in a contentious parent-child scenario, but there is an unspoken and unexplained ease between Leo and Vera that makes this an interesting pairing and allows the truthful conversations to happen.

These emerge fairly naturally from their dialogue, although it is Leo who is more likely to be spontaneously affectionate and to recognise the value of sporadic physical contact in creating and maintaining the intimacy between them, one that is considerably expanded by shared experience of grief for different people that gives them common ground as well as a shared language during their time together in which they are euphemistic about their true feelings or avoid confronting the depths of them in front of the other. So 4000 Miles includes much that is unsaid, which can be a frustrating experience but it is all there under the surface of Herzog’s play which essentially dramatises a transitory state for its protagonists in which something will emerge for them both by the end of their time together, not substantially altering their lives and the essential hurts and guilt will remain, but a recalibration occurs that leaves them in a slightly altered state.

Eyre’s production is a little fussy in places, meticulously changing tiny details in the set to indicate time passing between scenes, shifting magazines and coffee cups or plumping cushions that slightly break the tension and the mood as a group of visible stage managers appear in the gloom. Otherwise this has a fairly decent pace, sagging only slightly when Atkins’s Vera is absent, the other duologues – with Leo’s girlfriend Bec and date Amanda – not quite reaching the same level of meaning. This is largely in Herzog’s writing rather than the production choices because the younger female characters are just there to reflect on Leo and feed the audience greater context about his life and choices rather than complete creations in their own right, making it harder for the audience to believe they continue to exist beyond the moment in this drama. They are not devoid of purpose though, and Elizabeth Chu’s Amanda is a particularly enjoyable cameo in a scene that bursts with liveliness and personality with Chu bringing real humour to her scene in a production that is often snarky rather than hilarious. But Amanda’s character isn’t much more than this and Bec (Nell Barlow) is little more purposeful, a reason for Leo to feel worse about himself and more isolated as their relationships strains.

The real treat here is Atkins’s wide-ranging masterclass performance as Vera, and this is what London has missed out on by letting this production go. Her Vera is so skillfully drawn and layered with the challenges of age and irascibility that make both communication and connection a real and genuine challenge for her, making physical contact with the person in front of her so difficult. Atkins is particularly good at portraying Vera’s memory loss and continual scrambling for the words she cannot find, having to replace them with indefinite substitutes. Atkins makes this feel so natural and exposing at the same time, the audience can feel her character’s brain actively searching and grasping as well as her growing exasperation with herself. Alongside the physical performance which is so precise, Atkins slowly thaws Vera’s detached exterior, revealing the soft spot for her grandson and the increasing reliance on his presence, something she gets used to very quickly. And while she may complain about his cleanliness and need for money, she checks on him while he is sleeping several times, revealing a maternal care and concern that she would never openly admit.

Atkins’s Vera is also a woman who has lived, dropping hints throughout about a bigger, harder, more colourful life before with two husbands, at least one of whom was a notorious philanderer, and a passionate love affair with a man she refuses to name. The added complexity here that Atkins finds is that Vera knows that all of this life is a memory, that the best is behind her – perhaps why she is so keen to have Leo around to live youth again through him – and it adds a melancholy to the performance that is very touching. Vera is tough on the surface, calmly batting away the intrusion of others with plenty of caustic one-liners, but Leo finds her alone and lonely, and his presence makes her realise that, quietly encouraging him to stay longer. It is a performance that lifts the play and makes its messages feel more universal.

Sebastian Croft as Leo is not an easy character to empathise with for quite different reasons, and while there are similar degrees of suffering, Leo has little remorse for some of the things that he has done or any recognition that he might have acted inappropriately. Leo has a tendency to blame others for his failings, often his mother, sometimes the short-sightedness of society itself for not condoning his behaviour, so it can be difficult for the character to gain enough traction to carry scenes without Vera, particularly when he is trying to convince the women he is involved with to accept his perspective and believe in his questionable motives.

Croft does find those moments of empathy and sadness in which Leo recognises that he is trapped and unable to go home or move forward until he confronts the things he has done more fully, but it never makes him entirely redeemable. There is a sense of confusion in Leo’s behaviour that does come through in Croft’s performance of a young man living without consequence and never entirely acknowledging the effect he has on others so there is a process of growing up to do within the play. And although that is by no means complete at the end of the 4000 Miles, Croft does develop the character towards taking charge of himself and who he needs to be.

There are advantages to relocating this production to Chichester, to a space where a greater intimacy is possible between audience and characters separated by only a few meters and a much smaller playing area than is possible in the Old Vic where it would have required a bit more work to project to a three-tiered auditorium. But Eyre has found that connection here in a realistic staging designed by Peter McKintosh that fills the platform with bookcases, creating an intellectual environment for Vera and Leo to share their views while also giving them a stable, welcoming room in which the older, established and more experienced figure can help to coax a younger relative through the first major crisis of their life. Will Leo end up like Vera? Maybe, but Herzog suggest that is not necessarily the worst thing that could happen, and with Atkins on excellent form, it is a sentiment that the audience can share. 4000 Miles perhaps isn’t a modern classic and the play has its problems but there is enough in this production and the performances to keep the audience watching.

4000 Miles is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 10 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Motive and the Cue – National Theatre

Hamlet is the most endlessly beguiling play and we cannot get enough of it – the profound reflections on life and death, the relativity of the human condition and the ways in which individual action have consequences for collective experience. This play reveals new secrets all the time as different actors and productions find something new to say. Is Hamlet a tragic son cheated out of his birth right and consumed by grief for his beloved dead father, is he a madman picturing phantoms that drive him to paranoia and destruction or a misogynist spoiled brat who subverts the emotions of others to give his own needs priority? Any way that you see this play, there is a Hamlet out there for you, an estimated two hundred thousand known Hamlets in fact as Jack Thorne’s rather brilliant new play reveals. And if there is anything as fascinating as Hamlet himself, it is the process an actor undergoes in order to play him.

The Motive and the Cue, directed by Sam Mendes at the National Theatre, is set across a month in the 1960s when Richard Burton rehearsed his Hamlet with the eminent Sir John Gilegud directing him. A terse and difficult production that provides just enough of the behind-the-scenes theatrical scandal to entertain the audience with catty exchanges between the two great egos. But Thorne also finds intense vulnerability in these men manifesting in different ways at different points in the process that say much about the instability and insecurity of their profession as well as the ways in which Hamlet as a text forces the performer to engage with its big existential questions, getting under the skin of both men in ways that Thorne shows never leaves them. Who these men and actors are before they play Hamlet and after is one of the big themes of this piece.

But there are also plenty of important ideas in here about performance more broadly, integrated into the month-long rehearsal period taking place ahead of the show’s Broadway opening – a production that theatre history states went on to considerable and record-breaking success. But Thorne is most interested in the craft of acting and directing in this play, how do you take a piece of writing and turn it into something fresh and full-blooded and at what cost to those involved. There are lots of different things happening, mostly subtly, across The Motive and the Cue – what does it mean for a revered screen actor like Burton to not only take on one of the most challenging roles of all time, one that actors measure themselves against, but to relinquish the control of himself and of the prestige his fame has brought to be directed within the intensive theatre process? The debate rages beneath the surface of this play about the difference between screen and stage actors and what their training and methods bring to the process of character excavation and discovery. And while Thorne is reasonably even-handed about this with both Gielgud and Burton coming in for equal shares of criticism and celebration, the ask of Hamlet for different kinds of actor is a compelling debate within the play – and one, incidentally, that Sam Mendes is uniquely placed to address through the combination of theatre and cinema within his work.

The Motive and the Cue is also a play about theatre history, about the unique place this role holds in it and the many times and ways it has been played before. The character of Burton is deeply challenged by the idea of ‘his’ Hamlet and what that should consistently be across the rehearsal period and within the performance. But Thorne situates this in the context of all the other Hamlets that have gone before, and most particularly with Gielgud’s, and to a lesser extent Olivier’s, arguing that the latter’s on screen incarnation sets a kind of impossible template for others to follow. Thorne stages numerous clashes between the actor-director Gilegud and Burton who argue about interpretation, energy and Hamlet’s state of mind at any given moment, Gilegud floundering in the face of Burton’s muscularity within the role that removes doubt or reflection while Burton endlessly resents the feeling that he is being led towards a version of Gielgud’s own Hamlet, erupting at notes and suggested line readings that ultimately get neither very close to the production they wanted to create.

Thorne too is fascinated by the shifting tides for actors explored in this play, the joy of a new generation finding fresh meaning and purpose in Shakespeare’s text, but also the quiet tragedy of a baton being passed, of a former ‘great’ feeling (realistically or not) that his time and relevance is ending, that he is out of touch and out of favour with less declamatory, more earthy styles of acting so vitally alive in front of him. But it works the other way around too, and Thorne shows Burton struggling with the classicism he so desperately wants to master, to be revered and respected for the enduring creation of great art as Gielgud and Olivier are before him, but failing to reconcile his inexperience in this instance with the hope of producing that memorable, eternal performance that this play in particular demands that an actor aspire to.

Within this, Thorne is able to neatly explore the vulnerability in both men, Gielgud an elder statesman but ultimately alone, an isolated figure in another country miles from the comfort of an absent and much missed partner, feeling irrelevant and attacked by forces of modernity. Burton meanwhile grapples with memories of his parent in a play that sees father-son configurations throughout – in Hamlet and Hamlet Senior, Burton and his wayward miner father, and even in Gielgud and Burton. Trying to understand Shakespeare’s character leads both men to similar confrontation in their own lives, and one of Thorne’s most deft accomplishments is aligning extracts from Hamlet with the emerging drama of the rehearsal room and its environs.

The Motive and the Cue is structured around the days of the rehearsal with the audience dropping in at irregular intervals as preparations progress. Each chapter title has an associated quote from Hamlet relevant to the scene that is about to be played and Thorne doesn’t always select the most obvious ones. Sometimes scenes begin with large sections from Hamlet performed as though on stage in Burton’s eventual production but these merge back into the rehearsal room. At other times, Thorne follows three of his cast members into their real lives – Burton himself at home with his new wife Elizabeth Taylor and separately Gielgud who exists in a small break room and once in his own lodgings. There is something temporary about the state in which they all live, part of the actors’ life perhaps but it is also rootless, even possibly soulless, empty beyond the playing spaces where they are most fully alive. But these emotional depths and vulnerabilities shape and are brought into their conceptions of Hamlet.

Sam Mendes is the ideal director for a production like this with his rare ability to suggest the epic and the intimate concurrently. In The Motive and the Cue, Mendes applies this simply and subtly but to considerable effect, melding this illustrious history of Hamlet in performance that so troubled Burton with the very pressing and fractious concerns of this specific production and indeed of this one actor finding his way roughly to the part. Mendes’s staging choices capture this entirely, the insignificance of this Hamlet among the two hundred thousand but also its urgency and the personal deconstruction that it brings to these people in this moment. Mendes has long blended his experience of film and theatre, and here uses intersecting horizontal and vertical curtains to frame scenes in different ways to create intimacy and scale in the most cinematic sense – much as Robert Icke did with The Red Barn on the same stage – small and tight shots for external scenes, zooming out to wide lens for the capacious and intimidating emptiness of the rehearsal room that so oppresses Burton and Gielgud to a degree.

The style that Mendes employs here is like a behind-the-scenes, making-of theatre documentary, putting the audience in the position of the camera observing the creative process. The layers of a director and a director-character are really interesting, leading to plenty of theatre insights about control and purpose in the rehearsal room, the kind of support different actors need and how all the pieces have to fit together. This play reveals the hugely exposing process of creating a performance and the stakes for all involved if the piece fails, and Mendes gives space for all of this elliptical discussion while still providing momentum and meaning in both the Hamlet and Hamlet production sections.

The only possible false note here is the presence of Elizabeth Taylor as little more than a device for Burton to interact with outside his work, and while Thorne is accurately reflecting their life together at this time, giving her some very funny lines, she never quite feels like a whole person and never really like Elizabeth Taylor either. It creates a major female role in the drama, explores her parallel experience particularly with Gielgud as both found fame at a young age, but there is little development for her, nor is her presence entirely integrated within or modeled on the Hamlet sections in the way that other characters are. It also takes time away from the wider cast who despite a starry list including the painfully underused Janie Dee and Luke Norris – referencing perhaps the famous faces playing smaller roles in Burton’s Hamlet just for the honour of working with Gielgud – but we get too little of their struggle in the context of their lead actor and director’s destructive bickering.

Johnny Flynn gives a quite astounding performance as Burton, capturing the clamorous insistance of his vocal intonation and the very particular pace and timbre of his voice. But this is considerably more than an impression, ranging from certainty that the character exhibits in early rehearsals and a relaxed ease with his fame hoping that others will respect but accept his groundedness, through to the drunken rage and sulkiness that stems from Burton’s fear of the very vulnerability he requires to truly inhabit this role. Flynn makes his Burton awful and charismatic at the same time, erudite and instinctual as an actor but fighting demons – his past, his fame, his Hamlet – that consume him.

Mark Gatiss’s Gielgud is both more easily sympathetic but also more guarded, carrying around the weight of his eminence like a millstone. This Gielgud is adrift, struggling to find meaning and purpose, looking for it in the wrong places and only feeling more disconnected from the life he has lived and what it all meant as the acerbic relationship with Burton takes its tolls. Gatiss has always been particularly good at quiet despair, and it serves him well here with acres of feeling emanating from his pained loneliness as he grapples with new actors and new Hamlets in a rapidly changing profession.

The Motive and the Cue is a layered and engaging piece about the process of theatre, the things that evolve and the things that don’t, how performances are created and thrust into the world and why it feels so transient and eternal at the same time. Mendes and Thorne celebrate a play that test us all, audience, director and actor, a four hundred year old enigma that has been played two hundred thousand ways and will surely be played two hundred thousand more. Burton may or may not have found his Hamlet, but Thorne’s play shows why it remains an actor’s greatest and most rewarding challenge.

The Motive and the Cue is at the National Theatre until 15 July with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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