Tag Archives: David Tennant

Don Juan in Soho – Wyndhams Theatre

David Tennant in Don Juan in Soho by Helen Maybanks

‘Satan in a Savile Row Suit’, Patrick Marber’s leading man is devious, debauched and morally bankrupt, without a single care for anything except the pursuit of his own pleasure and without a single scruple of conscience for all the people he hurts along the ways. He is all these things, a man we are warned right at the top of the show not to love, a man with no soul and seemingly no heart to save even himself. But he’s also irresistible, living, by his own admission, as a man in his purest natural state, away from the façade of modern life, driven entirely by instinct and want and desire. He is Don Juan.

We are fascinated by villains, by people who live to extremes in a way none of us would dare. We baulk at the outrageousness of their lifestyle while inwardly admiring the sheer bravado of their choices. And deep down it’s all about our relationship with morality, where it comes from – either socially constructed or religiously imposed – and how it changes as society evolves, which explains the continual revivals of plays about Don Juan and his counterpart Faustus, and it is no coincidence in our more than troubled modern times that both have been seen in London’s playhouses numerous times in the past couple of years.

Marber wrote Don Juan in Soho a decade ago and has updated it slightly for this wonderful new production which has its press night at the Wyndhams Theatre tomorrow. Before we meet the man himself the audience is offered a none-to-flattering character sketch by his Butler/ Chauffeur, Stan, who waits in the lobby while “DJ” is in the penthouse with a Croatian model. Cheating on his wife of only two weeks, this is a man whose appetites are rapacious, having worked his way through three women a day for twenty years, what follows are a series of comic scenarios as Don Juan pursues his need for wine and women. But high on drugs in Soho one night he thinks a statue has come to life warning him he has one more day to live. Will he repent at last?

This new production, which Marber also directs, is a riot, full of life and full of fight. This Don Juan is not a man who apologises or kowtows to social influence but fights every second for his right to do whatever he pleases, and between scenes Marber fills the stage with swirling projections, light, music and colour, with images of Soho flashing onto the screens. For Don Juan this is his life, a constant sensory experience, the only thing he craves to keep him alive.

Yet Anna Fleischel’s multi-purpose set brings out a battle between old and new, tradition and modernity, tapping into a single melancholy moment as Don Juan half regrets that Soho is not the decadent place it once was. The worn marbled effect of the tomb-like rooms reflects Don Juan’s moral decay and the ultimate journey to the grave that awaits us all. Even in the park scene he is surrounded by mildewed benches and cold grey statues. His experiences may be explosively colourful but when they stop, all that’s left is a dark emptiness – a truth about himself Don Juan never wants to face but also accepts.

Tennant’s glorious performance leaves us in no doubt that Don Juan is not a man to feel any sympathy for, someone who will do anything to anyone so long as he has a good time – no regrets, no guilt and absolutely no shame. This is an interesting role for Tennant because one of his hallmarks as an actor is finding the humanity and sensitivity in his characters, creating a layered understanding of why they behave as they do. But Don Juan is without those kinds of depths, he is a lothario living entirely on the surface and has no moral compass of any kind, which is a different kind of challenge for actor who usually conveys depth so well. Instead he revels in the gluttony of Don Juan’s sexual escapades with some beautifully timed comic moments, particularly in a notorious but shockingly hilarious scene in a hospital waiting room which has to be seen to believed.

And there’s lots to admire in the pure certainty of Tennant’s leading man; he doesn’t swagger artfully so much as stumble from each lust-fuelled incident to the next, often looking wrecked from his activities but unable to stop himself or others from pursing the next opportunity however immoral or inappropriate. And Tennant lures you in before pulling the rug from under you – as Stan warns us he would – with some deeply dubious games like attempting to bribe a devout man to sully the name of his God. There is some nuance of course and Don Juan clearly fears his foretold death but not enough to go against his own nature and change his lifestyle – however unpleasant, he is always entirely conscious of what he is and unyieldingly true to it.

But best of all is the complete blankness with which he receives the opinions of others, particularly his wife and father, who tell him in detail how badly he has behaved and the pain he has caused. Lesser actors would have to prove they were reacting with a head shake or eye roll, but Tennant receives each lambast without expression and perfectly still, as if every word were flowing right over him without making the slightest ripple. It’s very skilled work to convey so much without a flicker, but none of it touches him and it speaks volumes about his lack of morality.

Marber has added some great up-to-date references to Trump which get several knowing laughs, while Tennant has a couple of fabulous comic monologues to rant about the state of the world and people’s need to be seen and heard at all times doing the most mundane things. These are few, and perhaps are not entirely plot centred, but they are an excoriating indictment of modern life and when Tennant is in full flight you don’t want to be anywhere else.

Adrian Scarborough is the perfect foil as Don Juan’s long-standingly exasperated companion and documenter of his many amours. Stan is our way into the production and in some sense its moral heart as he tries to extricate himself from Don Juan’s employ. Overwhelmed by his Master’s deceits. Scarborough shows us that the marriage, contracted merely for seductive purposes and then cast aside, feels like a final straw but that Stan is more than a cipher for Don Juan’s story, having his own frustrated desires and demands, unable to retrieve the £27,000 in owed wages or start a family. Stan talks directly to the audience on a couple of occasions warning us not to be drawn in, but at the same time Stan is us, repelled and annoyed but endlessly fascinated by Don Juan’s seductive charms.

The surrounding cast taking on a number of roles is more mixed and at times quite stagey. There are plenty of women who pass through Don Juan’s life during the play, none of whom really make their mark, which seems to be a deliberate choice, reflecting his own lack of engagement with them. Danielle Vitalis as DJ’s wife Elvira has the difficult task of playing earnest and innocent in a world of louche so can seem a little stilted, but Gawn Grainger has a small, enjoyable role as Don Juan’s buffoon parent disgusted by his son but as easily fooled by his entreaties as everyone else in a very fine comic scene.

Marber’s production feels like the cousin of Jamie Lloyd’s Faustus from 2016 with Kit Harrington that tackled similar themes about morality, death and the individual in modern times, but with a deliberately distinctive visual style that was hugely divisive. It’s probably reasonable to say if that wasn’t your cup of tea, then this might not be either and it’s likely to split the critics. As a health warning there’s lots of swearing, drug-taking, sex, violence and fantasy elements including a surprising rickshaw moment that anyone who’s seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on stage might appreciate. It was clear from the interval chat that some people found the content difficult but if this sounds like a perfect recipe for a night at the theatre then this is the show for you.

Don Juan in Soho is crude, lewd, shocking, morally skewed, vicious and frankly lots of fun. At times genuinely hilarious, innovative and exuberant, it’s a show that zips along with its protagonists need to keep moving, but there is a shadow of nostalgia, of a happier past that cannot be reclaimed that keeps this from being all farce and fluff. Tennant’s Don Juan may be repugnant and unsalvageable, and despite all the warnings you don’t want to love him… you just do.

Don Juan in Soho is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 10 June and tickets start at £10 for standing seats. An age recommendation of 16+ has been added to the show and most seats at the Wyndham’s offer a good view. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Review of the Year and What to See in 2017

Image result for 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Richard II – The Barbican

Richard II by Alastair Muir for RSC

At the start of a new year it’s traditional to look to the future, to think about self-improvement, make resolutions and generally hope for better things. It will seem somewhat strange then that my first theatrical review of 2016 is looking back to a production that first took place over two years ago. The re-arrival of David Tennant and the RSC’s 2013 version of Richard II is something of a special event, not only as part of a complete cycle of Shakespeare’s histories currently in performance taking audiences from said Richard to Henry V, but is an unusual thing in theatre- a repeat. Now, we are used to seeing transfers which means you can see the same play from somewhere like The Young Vic, National Theatre or Royal Court or beyond in a bone fide West End theatre a few weeks or months later. There are tours too, that begin and end in London which allow you to see the same show several months later, and revivals occur all the time with new casts, directors and designs that give a new twist to a well-worn classic, but to take a play that completed its entire run years ago and reconvene many of the original cast within the exact same production values is a rare thing indeed.

One of the joys and frustrations of theatre is that it only exists for a moment before it’s gone, even the National Theatre Live people have quite sensibly refused to release their cinema recordings on DVD or download to preserve that ‘one night only’ feel. But imagine if you could do this all the time, what productions would you replicate in their entirety, just to see them again one more time? Alan Rickman and Lindsey Duncan in the 2001 production of Private Lives would be high on my list, Tennant’s Hamlet of course and I could easily see the recent A View from the Bridge countless times. You could also pick something you missed out on first time around, that hot ticket that everyone got but you, or even something from long ago that wistful theatre critics remember fondly. What the RSC is doing at the Barbican however is far more practical, by giving proper context to a particular cycle of plays it will help the audience understand the meaning and consequences of that period of history, and offer an almost unique rep season as a fitting start to this 400th anniversary year.

Undoubtedly, this production of Richard II was one of the best things I’d ever seen in a theatre and its reprise certainly lives up to my memory of it. There have been just enough changes to keep it fresh however and although Tennant returns to his original role, as does Oliver Ford Davis as the Duke of York, Jane Lapotaire remains the Duchess of Gloucester but Sam Marks is promoted from Bushy to the Duke of Aumerle. New members include Leigh Quinn who replaces Emma Hamilton as the Queen, Michael Pennington’s John of Gaunt has become Julian Glover, while chief agitator Bolingbroke sees Nigel Lindsay morph into Jasper Britton.  Design, direction and costumes are pretty much the same although two scenes configure slightly differently to how I remember them – a moment in which Richard descends from above on a platform and later mirrored by Bolingbroke as Henry IV don’t occur, and instead Richard’s is seen to slightly rise on the platform, while Bolingbroke does not move. This removes the religious, king-anointed-by-God imagery of the earlier production but presumably there is some health and safety reason for it not being included this time. Likewise the prison scene which took place in a trap door on the stage floor is replaced by a roll on board on which Richard sits in chains, but this change happily makes no difference to the power of the scene.

Seeing something a second time allows you to notice things that may have eluded you before, and Greg Doran’s production seems more openly sympathetic to Richard as a wronged man than it previously appeared. There are few redeeming features in Shakespeare’s presentation of Bolingbroke but Britton adds a touch of the pantomime villain to him, openly hostile to Richard’s orders from the start and with a huge chip on his shoulder. When Lindsay was in the role the character had a more thuggish approach but his claims that his invasion were solely for the purposes of honour in regaining his lost lands rang truer than they do with Britton’s interpretation which is an interesting point of comparison. Britton also makes Bolingbroke grubbier and less tender to the defeated Richard than Lindsay had been, as though his schemes run far deeper than he wants the court to believe, nicely emphasised here as they back away into the shadows as the consequences of his commands are discovered. It must be strange to take-over a central role in an established production so Britton is commended for bringing his own interpretation to it, not least for covering up sportingly when he accidentally knocked a piece of metal edging into the front row of the audience.

Leigh Quinn was a less successful exchange as the Queen, lacking the solemnity of her predecessor Hamilton. On learning of her husband’s capture and deposition she talked of woes but seemed entirely untouched by them or by their final parting which was a shame. Julian Glover, however, equals Michael Pennington as the melancholy John of Gaunt who witnesses the death of his brother and the exile of his son early in the play. The central triumvirate with Lapotaire and Ford Davis as the surviving Aunt and Uncles to King Richard add a lovely gravitas as they watch the next generation fail them. Credit also to Sam Marks who made an emotional transition to the role of Aumerle full of feeling for his King and remorse for the various betrayals he later commits to save his own life.

Tennant’s performance is every bit as good as it was in December 2013 balancing the initial ethereal god-like presence with a growing sense of his own humanity. Particularly interesting this time around was how rapidly Richard goes from never being touched – and when a subject lays a hand on him it is met with gasps from the court – to needing the physical proximity of others, to having no control whatsoever over his own body and its condition. Through the production and the torments it lays on him, Richard becomes less and less a deity on earth and more an unprotected man clinging to the little life he is allowed. Once again Tennant’s descent from regal to despondent is charted brilliantly, culminating in an especially moving scene as he publicly renounces the crown which visibly appears to cost him every bit of strength, as he bows to the inevitability of his own demise. Seeing this again, Richard II could almost be recategorised from history to tragedy as Richard’s fatal flaw (a failure to see and act clearly) signal his certain end as they do Macbeth and Hamlet. The rousing standing ovation that greeted the curtain is assurance that the Barbican audience loves Tennant as much as they do Cumberbatch.

Greg Doran’s production thus makes a welcome return to the Barbican for the next few weeks and while the cavernous stage seemed to drown last year’s Hamlet, here it is amply filled with suspicion and politicking. There were only three chances to see this play without booking the entire cycle (Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two (with Anthony Sher) and Henry V) and they all took place on the weekend just gone, but all the plays in this season have earned excellent critical reviews, so it’s worth seeing the lot, or chance your arm on the days Richard II is playing for a last minute return. The whole thing then transfers to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York from March. There will be plenty of new things to come in 2016, but as a year of Shakespeare celebrations begin, it’s a delight to look back to one of the best productions of recent years.

Richard II is part of the Shakespeare’s King and Country History Cycle that’s running in rep at the Barbican until 24 January before moving to New York from 24 March. Advanced tickets for the Barbican are only bookable for all four plays although day seats may be available for individual performances.

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Hamlet – The Barbican

Is Benedict Cumberbatch the one? This is the question on everyone’s lips at the moment. I am, of course, talking about whether this will be the greatest Hamlet any of us has ever seen, because I’m increasingly coming round to the idea that maybe there’s one perfect Hamlet out there for you and when you’ve found him (or her) then that performance will be the benchmark for every other Hamlet that follows. The Guardian’s eminent theatre critic Michael Billington recently wrote an interesting article suggesting that actors can never fail in their depiction of the character because there is so much scope for individual interpretation which can never be ‘wrong’, but I would take that a step further and say that we as the audience bring our reading of this play along with us, whether we’ve studied it, seen it 100 times or never, at some point an actor’s version and our own will intersect and bam you’ve got your Hamlet.

Without making this sound like an insipid rom-com, you’ll probably only find one ever, maybe two if you’re really lucky. That’s not to say you won’t appreciate, enjoy or love other Hamlets, but deep down somewhere there’ll be only one that really got to you. Mine was David Tennant in 2008, which even 7 years later I can happily gush incessantly about. I’d seen other impressive versions including Alex Jennings and Sam West (both at the Barbican incidentally) but Greg Doran’s 2008 RSC production showed me Hamlet as I had never seen it before, as a thriller, moving at an incredible pace to it’s  inevitable conclusion. I had studied this play for A-level, knew it inside out, yet I was on the edge of my seat almost willing the story to turn out differently. And Tennant was everything I’d ever wanted Hamlet to be, consumed with devastating grief that spoke of so much pain, agonising over life and death, mercurial but turning wonderfully on a hair’s breadth between comedy and tragedy. It was electrifying.

And there have been many other recent Hamlets that may have been the one for you – Rory Kinnear, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Sheen or Ben Whishaw – and these are just the ones since 2000. So, given the openness of the text you pretty much have free reign to like any Hamlet you want if you think the actor brings the right qualities to the role – although honestly if you think Mel Gibson was a perfect Hamlet you should expect exile as minimum punishment. Yet I can’t recall a Hamlet that’s created so much off-stage drama as this new Barbican version; Cumberbatch refusing to sign autographs, critics sneaking in to publish unethical early reviews, rows about fans filming the production, the cost of preview seats – and amid all of this what is really sad is that no one is talking about the work, so let’s do that now.

What everyone really wants to know is how good is Cumberbatch? And the answer is fairly good with potential.  Now I need to caveat this by saying it’s still a preview performance, although it’s now got 10-12 shows under its belt and 20 days of previews is unusual. Not that I knew I was booking a preview a year ago having waiting 3 hours in an online queue of 4000, given just 5 mins to book some seats – back then the press night would not have been set. Anyway, Cumberbatch’s take is an outraged and angry Hamlet, and we first see him sentimentally packing his father’s things suggesting their close connection. This sense of outrage is then fed through the performance which Cumberbatch uses well to make sense of Hamlet’s frustration with his mother, disgust with Claudius and anger at his own failure to act.

The soliloquies have everyone sitting forward in anticipation and Cumberbatch feeds the anger through them so each one builds into a tirade against the circumstances of his life (purists will be delighted to know that ‘To be or not to be’ is back in its proper place). He has to fight against the scale of the set to put across the intimacy of these internal struggles so all credit to him for almost winning that battle, and as the evening draws on his performance grows in confidence. Cumberbatch is particularly adept at drawing out the humour and this is one of the high points. There are still things to work on though, particularly I felt at the beginning where he’s not quite connecting to the depths of grief necessary for the ‘Too, too solid flesh’ speech, and although this is clearly a production choice there’s not quite enough emphasis on the philosophising side of Hamlet, particularly in the early contemplation of life and death, and the later acceptance of fatality. These are things he can quite clearly do as his fantastic lead in After the Dance at the National pre-Sherlockian fame proved, but overall it felt that other decisions in this production somehow mute the depth he was trying to convey and actually do his performance quite a disservice.

Its set in the hall of a large country house with sweeping staircase, littered with paintings and memorabilia that emphasise the military life and country pursuits. Designer Es Devlin has created another beautiful set and while the scale of it may infer the grandeur of court,  it destroys the tension of a small group of people holed up together. It just doesn’t feel claustrophobic enough so you never quite get that sense that events are teetering on a knife’s edge. Lyndsey Turner’s has made the same mistake here that she did in A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, there’s lots of talking but it didn’t feel like it was building to anything. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy so there should be a certain inevitability driving this; from the moment he agrees to act he is doomed, but that over-arching shape to the production, which the director gives, is lacking. So even the final scene felt botched, with all the tension dissipated – as the bodies stacked up it should feel epic but was a garbled rush that was slightly unsatisfactory.

There are several reasons for this, one is that the other characters felt pale and in the background, which is no reflection on the crop of very fine actors here. Lots of the text has been cut so while Polonius is often a viciously controlling, verbose and creepy character, here he just seemed a bit quirky being dispatched before you’d even noticed he was there. It also takes a long time to get insights into Claudius and Gertrude, and until pretty much 2 hours in when they get their own focus. Ciaran Hines is completely compelling in Claudius’s prayer scene to the point you almost sympathise but we’re not seeing that danger early on. Anastasia Hille is very good in the Closet scene which is transposed to the Grand Hallway, as her Gertrude pleads ignorance but the motherly tenderness of concern for her son is not embedded early enough. Similarly there is restraint in the other characters too, including Laertes who reacts to the death of his father and sister with a surprising sense of ‘oh well’ which doesn’t quite align with the later demand for Hamlet’s death. All of these performances could be more colourful, and it seemed liked they’d been asked to hold it back. Maybe they’re saving it for the press but maybe it’s also to ensure the light stays on our star-Hamlet, which is fine but in doing so they give Cumberbatch less to bounce off and less reason for his character’s predicament, thus undermining his deeper portrayal.

This is by no means an awful production and I enjoyed watching what has clearly been designed to be a visual and accessible version of the play. There are also some interesting ideas which made me think, particularly the emphasis on childhood (seen on that cryptic poster) and games demonstrated through Hamlet’s toy soldier fort and the player’s toy theatre onstage. It’s hinting at questions about the infantilization of Hamlet as a character through the close connection with his parents and disgust at his mother’s remarriage. So there is an almost rites of passage element to this where he must pack away childish things and deal with adult themes of murder and lust. I think that’s a really interesting interpretation of the play but there’s only a surface engagement with that at the moment and something that could really set this apart from other productions.

So there you have it, a lot of unrealised potential and some unfortunate directorial choices. Cumberbatch is very good in spite of those choices and it’s clearly a mark of his skill that you can see him fighting to give a deep performance in a stylised and at times superficial production. I almost wanted to lift the entire cast out of this toy theatre and plonk them into another version to let them fully realise all their roles, and I fear that the shape of this production won’t ever let them do that. But I await later reviews eagerly. Perhaps fundamentally the production still needs to position itself on the key questions and even if you decide not to address the politics, or the philosophy of it, the production itself needs to enhance rather than restrain the acting. Is Benedict Cumberbatch the one? Not for me but he will be for lots of people and I hope the rest of the run gives him the space to develop it, he certainly deserves that.

Hamlet is at the Barbican until 31st October. Advanced tickets are sold out but 30 seats at £10 are available each day plus returns so check the website. NT Live will be broadcasting to cinemas on 15 October but best to book now as that is also selling quickly. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Richard II – RSC at the Barbican

Nine months, nine months I’ve waited to see this play! Booking my front-row tickets back in March it seemed so long to wait. The play opened in Stratford to amazing reviews, it was shown live in cinemas which I had to resist and finally it arrived at the Barbican this week. After so many months of anticipation and near hysterical levels of excitement, could the RSC’s Richard II possibly live up expectation…hell yes!

I’ve been privileged enough to see David Tennant on stage twice before, most recently in Much Ado About Nothing where he displayed a surprising aptitude for slapstick. But his Hamlet, also with Greg Doran directing, was electrifying – a play I’d seen countless times had me on the edge of my seat with a central performance of grief so brilliantly balanced it was at once dark and comedic, menacing and heartbreaking.

Richard II is the story of two Kings, Richard himself and his successor (or usurper) Henry IV, but this production shows them as the two faces of kingship – Richard is regal, godly and majestic, dressed often in pale white and gold, while Henry is thuggish, hard and earthy in his darker reds and browns. They are in some sense one person, two sides of one King. In a particularly striking moment you see Richard descend from above enthroned on a platform, bathed in white light and shining gold. Later, in parallel, we see Henry do the same, and yet despite the trappings of kingship – the crown, sceptre and throne – he seems a parody of the man he replaced, now embroiled and muddied in a more deadly political world. Greg Doran, as with Hamlet, brings a real sense of threat to the direction, building the tension as the action plays out, so that even after nearly 3 hours you’re still captivated and wanting more. With so much happening off-stage and just reported by the character’s Shakespeare can sometimes appear sanitised, but with Doran’s productions you feel a shadow of those events slowly infecting everyone as the play progresses helping to create a fantastic tension and drive.

And so to Tennant….what can I say, it was a performance of real magnificence. His Richard begins stately and in control, his chin raised but using a softly controlled voice to imply a hint of androgyny. Wholly convinced of his divine right to rule and his status as god’s representative, his courtiers obey however strange the decision. Yet by appropriating John of Gaunt’s lands his arrogance blinds his judgement and leads to his undoing, and here Tennant is unsurpassable. One of his great strengths as an actor is being able to convey deep and complex emotions and always suggests great pathos without becoming hammy. He takes an audience with him, and here creates incredible sympathy for Richard; watching him crumble was mesmerising – from the scene on the Welsh beach when he first realises his supporters have deserted him and the Kingdom is lost, to reluctantly and indecisively choosing to hand over his crown – devastating.  Earlier, I used the word privilege in seeing Tennant perform, the word was carefully chosen for a privilege it is.

There are often great theatre performances in London and I’ve been lucky enough to see most of my favourite actors. But sometimes something very very special comes along. Tennant’s Hamlet was one and now his Richard II is a rare chance to see a performance of such majesty that it will be talked about among the great moments of theatre history. Everything about this production shines, the ensemble acting is first class, the stage design is glorious and the direction brilliant – I could write pages more! It was worth every second of that nine month wait, so do whatever it takes – queue for day tickets, scour the country for an RSC-live cinema screening, bribe the Barbican – do whatever you have to do, but SEE THIS PLAY!

Richard II is at the Barbican until 25 January.


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