Tag Archives: David Tennant

Good – Harold Pinter Theatre

Being wanted is an incredibly intoxicating feeling and militaristic societies thrive on the notion of inclusion. Veterans and historians write a great deal about comradeship in the armed forces which in any era binds men together and helps them to fight for a set of ideals even if they don’t fully embrace them. But being part of it, being included, being on the inside of an elite group can carry normal men a long way. C. P. Taylor’s play Good, written in 1981 is about the easy slide into extremism, how a decidedly ordinary, peaceable even tolerant man with no obvious belief in the outcomes of Nazism can actively choose to join and then rise through the ranks to exert a kind of doctrinal influence. And the reason is the thrill of being wanted, of belonging and of being welcomed with open arms even by the leader himself.

Taylor’s play has a complex construction, one that makes several demands of an audience as it cuts back and forth in time, blurring conversations happening with different people and at different times in academic John Halder’s life. Taylor smashes them together in really interesting ways, placing John at the centre of several interlocking and decisive events that take him towards Party membership initially and then full collusion. The notion implied by the play’s title (one of many interpretations of its meaning) that he is a ‘good’ man is challenged immediately and Taylor asks some philosophical questions about the characteristics of goodness and the balance of behaviours that determine whether someone is ‘good’ or ‘evil’, the childlike simplicity of which Taylor also challenges.

The happy family scenario that the audience is presented with – of Halder’s home life with a chaotic but devoted wife and unseen children he claims to love dearly – strike a false note when he immediately suggests to friend Maurice that he only says the words for effect, for his own sake, as though requiring an anchor to steady his other impulses about which he yet knows or expects nothing. But there is a lingering doubt in Halder from the start that his instincts try to protect him from.

And soon Taylor is provoking the audience’s perception of John again with the arrival of a young student that Halder is drawn to almost in spite of himself, professing love for his wife but hardly resisting the girl about whom he speaks openly. It becomes a familiar characteristic of John’s journey through life that he flows easily from one state to another, jettisoning his old life as though it never existed in favour of a new one, never resisting or denying himself the things he is freely offered. From here across nearly two hours of performance we experience the slow degrees of assimilation and acceptance of the extraordinary as the norm as well as the incremental deconstruction of any humanity external to John’s own immediate feeling.

The concept recurs repeatedly, first in a lecture he gives on the primacy of the self in literature rather than the community-first notion that Nazism espouses which evolves into an Anti-Semitic rejection of Jewish scholars and creatives. Later, John’s failure to feel or prioritise anxieties beyond those immediately affecting his personal life becomes quite stark as the 1930s wears on and his Jewish friend is increasingly endangered. That few of us have the capacity to think about broader social ills while balancing our own troubles is Taylor’s all to pertinent point but the very concept of goodness becomes a nonsense in the reductive simplicity of its impossibly selfless characteristics. We see it eroded one step at a time by John’s desire for inclusion and respect from the State as well as the separation that the Professor of Literature acknowledges between his inner self and the public man.

The word ‘good’ becomes then a crucial pivot point throughout the play, littering the text with a deliberate emphasis as characters seek to reassure themselves that they are good people or, more dangerously, that they are acting for the greater good, whatever that means at any given moment. Taylor gives John an internal monologue where he can explore this idea more fully which he exercises between and within conversations, sometimes as speeches to the audience and others asides to himself, reacing to his interlocutor privately in his mind and then often more blandly to their face. This becomes a place of increasing disinterest or detachment from the external world that grows and takes root in John despite being an active participant in the life he lives – John is not a man without agency.

This stream of consciousness frequently becomes an argument with himself, particularly about his feeling for Jewish friend Maurice who he is ambiguous towards as his own panic and fear drown out any empathy he may have for others. Likewise, his own mother whose growing disorientation as a result of senile dementia becomes an irritant to him and leads to a role in determining a drastic solution that this good man comes to believe is humane. By degrees, then, we see the good man John always believed himself to be was already deeply compromised long before he joined the SS, National Socialism merely speaks to something that already exists in him and makes John its tool.

Dominic Cooke’s production at the Harold Pinter Theatre which has its press night later this week is an increasingly affecting experience, presented on a representative set that saves its biggest shocks for later in the play. A fluid experience as scenes merge with only a beat and a change of lighting between them, this production builds a slow tumbling energy, a collection of conversations and off-stage activities that reach a tipping point beyond which the protagonist is no longer the man he thinks he is or the easy figure we first met. Where he, crucially, passes a point of no return is less clear and this version of Taylor’s work leaves the audience to wonder whether this was always John’s destiny due to a character defect in all of us or that the accumulated experiences push him forwards on a wave of mob mentality within that crowd he was so keen to be part of.

Cooke is particularly good at finding the emotional subtext and thrum of a piece and here he finds the humanity in John. The director is especially interested in the gap between illusion and delusion, the way in which people cling to outmoded or unrealistic ideas of themselves and how their life could or should be, particularly when the memory of what you once were is not necessarily who you are now. And in that sense Cooke draws a direct line between characters like Sally in Follies and John here.

But this does not create a sense of artifice or romance in this interpretation of Good, and instead, designer Vicki Mortimer has produced a representational space, a blank room made seemingly of steel or dark stone in which what characters say and what they do are not aligned – drawing a key theme from the text. It feels like a hinterland between worlds and, as the actors are often shown to speak of actions then they do not perform, and while it is set in the lead up to the Second World War, the design choices suggest a wider applicability to this scenario and some universal truths about human nature in a period of conflict. While there are no obvious scene changes, the design slowly takes on the characteristics of brutality, stark rooms and chambers where lives were extinguished. Zoe Spurr’s lighting design instead becomes the tools of tone, atmosphere and relocation, suggesting cosy domestic spaces and dehumanised official ones, summer days in the garden and wintry afternoons in the park as the chilling effects of the play unfold, helping Cooke’s production to seamlessly change scenario as conversations blur and overlap.

Music too is essential to this vision which is part of Halder’s world view, hearing music in his head as reflections of the conversational mood he is involved with. The specificity of these is incredibly important as German band music with its upbeat pomp encourages John to join the Party, the smooth vocal qualities of the crooner take him towards another woman and, as the world darkens, the melancholy strings of Schubert plague him. Music is a psychological reflection of John’s feeling if not quite his conscience – and it is not at all clear in Taylor’s play that he is troubled much by conscience – so Will Stuart’s musical arrangement along with Tom Gibbons’s sound design create an important connection for the audience with the things we cannot see either because they are in John’s mind or they are not acted – the latter an interesting examination of culpability, as though the characters are divorced from their actions.

David Tennant’s return to the stage wasn’t meant to take so long and Good was originally programmed for 2020. But 5 years it has been. His John is full of contradictions exploring the surface detachment and the growing absorption into the Nazi Party that begins to shape the expectations he has of himself and the situations he is willing to put himself in. The connection to the First World War and his experience as a veteran is essential to his desire to feel that same kind of comradeship and belonging again, but there is a coldness in John that is fascinating, taking the idea of a good man to its extremes, although not necessarily to delusion in Tennant’s interpretation, and he suggests instead that John is ultimately no different to the rest of us who could so easily follow the same path.

The technical control of the different narrative strands is superb, switching in a second between scenes and character intention as John moves from the domestic to the official, from muted declarations of affection to evasive interactions with friends and SS leaders, while clearly demarcating the personal notes to self that are initially funny but eventually troubling. What is so interesting in Tennant’s performance here is the understanding and presentation of all the things that John is and becomes, the way he adapts himself to the company he keeps as well as the control and concealment of information that doesn’t suit the immediate moment, something he seems to do by instinct. But again John is reflecting all of us in this, the casual and guarded behaviour to friends and the public professional at work. That Tennant still makes this feel like one person, and someone evolving across the years of the play is extraordinary as the degrees of self-compromise and failure to truly know himself or want to resist the man he is becoming build to an affecting costume change in Good‘s concluding scenes that is chilling.

Sharon Small and Elliot Levey play everyone else in fragmented interactions with John over time. Both superb character actors, the physical transformation in stance and vocal style are pronounced, taking the audience into the surrounding lives of SS officers, Jewish friends, lovers and collaborators who, though distinct, feel somehow like John’s unengaged impressions of others that while not exactly caricatures are snippets of the reality he sees. And the way in which this intimate ensemble work together to maintain John’s point of view is very skilled.

People love to belong and it is far harder to resist the tide in practice than in theory. Taylor’s play is a warning that we are all capable of terrible deeds but they won’t overwhelm us all at once but take control slowly, moving us gently away from who we think we are. E.M. Forster wrote that having a choice between betraying a friend and betraying his country, he hoped to have the courage to betray his country. Good is the story of those who don’t possess that courage and, as John abandons his friends to be accepted by the Party, his goodness is moot, and it becomes too late to stop him.

Good is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 24 December with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Staged: Series 2 – An Uber-Meta Constructed Reality

Staged Series 2 - BBC

The final episodes of Staged Season 2, Simon Evans’s hilarious lockdown comedy, air this week and, as with its first appearance last Summer, it has proved a lockdown boon. And while the show is inherently theatrical both in style and content while reflecting the screen boxes in which we have all lived for so long, Evans smartly decided to reorientate this second collection of episodes to give the interactions between characters a different energy while recasting and reconfiguring the audiences’ perspective on everything that had come before.

Originally Staged was of-the moment television created in response to and within the confines of the first national lockdown. It uses the video calling platform as its basis for communcation between a number of socially and geographically distant parties forced to reconsider their working practices as a result of the pandemic in order to progress with the development of a new piece of content. Both before and since, the boxed effect of this software has been seen across the arts as performances moved online and Staged, which was among the first to use this technique on mainstream television to underscore both its content and visual appearance, was unlike anything else before it.

Both Series 1 and 2 of Staged are inherently theatrical, with the first six episodes especially focused on the challenge for two reputed and sought after performers as well as their Director in failing to rehearse a version of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author – the nature of which the show mirrored. In terms of personnel alone, Series 1 utilised the particular nature of theatre-making, the rehearsal processes, casting and publicity along with the shape and form of Pirandello’s play as the characters slowly rebel against the authority of the Director. The deeply rooted theatre basis that ran through the first series was then enhanced with guest appearances from respected thespians Adrian Lester and Judi Dench who expanded the stage community that Evans’s script required.

Constructed Reality?

Series 2 continues to utilise the (now commonplace) video box style of Internet calling yet Evans has very carefully and astutely shifted the perspective of the show to give the premise a longer life. A tried and tested formula, more of the same would have been an easy sell but this new set of eight episodes allows the story to evolve in a very different direction and takes its inspiration instead from television rather than theatre. The central conceit is that Staged is now openly acknowledged as a TV show, a phenomenon for which an American remake is mooted with alternative stars. Instantly everything we thought we had witnessed in Series 1 is cast into doubt, a fictionalised reality where scenarios and characters were deliberately ‘constructed’.

The intimate ‘fly-on-the-wall’ quality of Series 1 has been repositioned as an elaborate fabrication in which the personal highs and lows of its famous protagonists in early lockdown were merely a feint. Staged Series 2 begins from this point of acknowledgment, recasting the existence of its predecessor as primarily a commercial rather than an artistic endeavour which will now be sold internationally. In both, the false past of Series 1 and the ‘truer’ reality presented in Series 2, mean Staged is owning its existence as a form of constructed reality.

The label may seem an unusual one for a BBC show about the interaction between two highly esteemed actors, but cast aside some of the negative implications of the term and Evans has actually created a form of heightened reality in which real people using their real names and relationships play versions of themselves. The way in which these scenarios drive the plot, the adoption and exaggeration of elements of the subjects’ day-to-day experiences and responses, the limited geographical location, techniques from soap opera drama and the editorial shaping of scenes, ‘chance’ meetings and conversations all figure in Staged, and are the very definition of constructed reality in which preconceived scenarios are exaggerated and spun for entertainment purposes.

When the character of David is caught lying to Samuel L Jackson and Michael Sheen twice in Series 1: Episode 3 it may be pure farce but, equally, it is the fundamental drama basis of most constructed reality shows where characters routinely lie, cheat, sell each other out and endure explosive bar-based confrontations. And this is even more apparent in Series 2 which leans openly into its reality TV credentials using Series 1 as a product to sell that Michael and David can sabotage. Again, the audience is given fly-on-the-wall access that echoes shows like Airport and even early Big Brother that journeyed to fiction through The Office and ultimately to Staged.

In each episode of Series 2, constructed conversations with possible US Davids and Michaels take place of which only a snippet is shown to the viewer, while the apparently conflicting ‘real life’ demands of family, filming schedules and old enmities distract and dominate the leads, giving them the chance to settle old scores. That the name of the show has multiple dimensions takes on a new significance in Series 2, not just referencing ‘the stage’ which thematically defined Series 1 and the meta level ‘staging’ of a televised conversation between two friends, but the notion of staging is fundamental to the constructed reality genre that Evans introduces into his concept with these new episodes.

Uber-Meta

Staged was always a show that drew on the meta associations of actors playing versions of themselves rehearsing a play while revealing the (here) lethargic process of developing a theatre production during a time of national crisis. The play withing a play concept fed throughout Series 1 offering plenty of humour as the protagonists misbehaved, lost focus and revealed their fears about their own styles and career paths. Series 2 takes the concept to a whole new level recasting the previously “true” story and making us aware instead that we were seeing actors playing versions of themselves playing versions of themselves – eight episodes of which can only be described as uber-meta.

And if that wasn’t mind-bending enough, Series 2 twists these meta principles even further by adopting a driver in which various pairs of actors are in discussion to play the parts in the American remake which will result in two actors playing versions of two other actors playing versions of themselves. So, within the boundaries of Series 2 many of the episodes contain both Tennant and Sheen plus cameos from single guests or duos each of whom is also playing a fictionalised version of themselves and who audition to play Sheen and Tennant in the US adaptation of the show (two actors playing versions of themselves playing two other actors playing versions of themselves). It is a Scaramanga / The Lady of Shanghai hall of mirrors that will hurt your head if you think about it too much.

A much simpler meta device focuses once again on Evans as a writer that cunningly incorporates some of the Series 1 feedback to create a recurring joke about improvisation. Lots of comedy is gleaned from Sheen and Tennant’s evident dissatisfaction at being recast and a fluid insistence on how much of the script they contributed to. The character of ‘Simon’ has been relocated to America (or at least to a leafy garden doubling for LA) for Series 2 where he continually reminds his original leads that he wrote the show and is therefore free to sell the material without consultation. That the hapless Simon is now doing rather well for himself and, for the most part, controlling the conversation is a clear development from Series 1 but that doesn’t prevent Evans as the writer from concocting scenarios in which guest stars question his input into conversations performed by Tennant and Sheen. The possibility of rewrites that crops up later in the series takes us into another meta loop of external rewrites of rewrites of a show Evans wrote, but let’s not start all that again.

Does it Work?

On the whole Series 2 is very successful, moving the story along in an interesting and perhaps unexpected way as Evans turns the premise of Staged on its head while extending it and even opening the possibility of further development – if each period of lockdown results in a new series of Staged then it can’t be too bad. But there are two areas where the second season slightly overreaches itself and despite two additional episodes has a slight tendency to focus on the action away from the spiky but devoted engagement between Sheen and Tennant which is the series’ biggest draw.

The premise of Series 2 requires a lot of guest appearances from performers with a more significant American profile than the UK version of the show. However, unlike Series 1 where guests were used sparingly and purposefully, here they become increasingly distracting using the impact of their profile rather than fully serving the story. Some of these scenarios, while jokey, do become repetitive as famous face after famous face reads a portion of the Series 1 script with Tennant and / or Sheen without really moving the story along.

And in places there is a falseness in their appearance that breaks the illusion of reality that Evans has created. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost riff with one another but, despite a real life friendship, their brief appearance in Episode 3 feels uneasy and stagier than it should. Later a reel of celebrity faces from Josh Gad to Jim Parsons and Ewan McGregor play themselves to varying effect – many of these encounters are humorous but they start to feel overdone. The star appearance works best either in the concluding episode when Evans provides a final and well-staged twist or when big names play non-real characters – so we mourn the loss of Nina Sosanya’s searing agent from most of the series (now we know she is not Jo but Nina) but welcome an equally brutal Whoopi Goldberg in a successfully fictionalised role.

There is a similar pallor to the expanded story given to Georgia Tennant, Anna Lundberg and in a couple of episodes Lucy Eaton who now have their own plot points outside the male-focused American adaptation. Having their perspectives is a valuable counterbalance and they have a great screen chemistry that brings a leveling hilarity to the more emotional interaction of Sheen and Tennant as they discuss an online charity event where the women will play versions of their partners. But the audience never gets to see it and developments in the show’s concluding episode essentially saps a possible outcome for these female characters.

While Series 2 occasionally tries to do too many things, the joyous interactions between Sheen and Tennant are the heart of the show and always its most successful element when they have time alone together on screen to rant, rave and connect. The progress in their relationship in this series is charmingly managed, building on the friendly fire of the first and using the rivalries with the guest stars to disrupt their relationship as well as give them a common enemy to unite against. There is a valuable consistency of character with Series 1, so even though they now acknowledge those initial versions were fictions, the emphasis on mental health, their bruised egos and unresolved feelings of displacement caused by the inability to work add to the richness of the developing bond between them.

Staged Series 2 successfully continues the story of these characters by utilising the concepts and conventions of reality television to create a window into the characters of David and Michael while playing with the interpretive layers of its enjoyable esoteric construct. That it is dressed in the production values, filming quality and casting power of the BBC while harnessing the immediacy of the video calling platforms in our lives may distract you but Staged is part of the broadening constructed reality genre. Popular culture and the arts are not so very far apart after all.

Staged Series 1 and 2 are available on the BBC iPlayer. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Series Review: Staged – BBC iPlayer

Michael Sheen and David Tennant in Staged (by BBC)

Who will be first out of the gate when theatres eventually reopen? It is a serious question, one that is surely taxing the minds of producers and directors across the country as they consider what can be safely staged in response to social distancing rules and public health expectations. Musicals with their large cast and crew requirements are likely to be at the back of the queue while plays with only one or two characters may be all that can be offered for a while. As Simon Evans’s cheeky new comedy points out, when the Government finally gives the go ahead, the best prepared teams will have their pick of the playhouses and first dibs on an audience desperate to get back to live theatre.

Evans’s delightful six-part comedy – showing weekly on BBC1 but also available in full on the iPlayer – centres around this notion while drawing on our lockdown experience of video calling platforms as a director tries to herd his two reluctant actors into rehearsals. Online theatre has changed considerably in the last three months, and we now seem a million miles from those tentative live readings on clunky Zoom calls uploaded to Youtube. Creatives have learned a lot and learned fast, and this rapid response to telling stories has resulted in some fascinating new content being created.

As well as ITV’s Lockdown Stories and the Donmar’s Midnight Your Time, several well-known theatre writers and performers created the anthology series Unprecedented, using the premise of video calling to tell a fascinating range of tales that covered everything from neighbourhood parties, vile team meetings and domestic abuse. No two perspectives and, crucially, no two filming styles were the same offering plenty of innovative approaches to what are straightened circumstances.

In a sense Staged is the culmination of all of that new knowledge, combining different kinds of camera, some installed as (or made to look like) webcams and others set-up and operated in the actors own homes, adding a level of polish to the show that would have seemed virtually impossible a few months ago. It also gives Evans greater flexibility in how he tells the story using a wider range of footage, including scene-break captures of deserted London streets, so eerie during the first phase of lockdown, and more sophisticated film cutting techniques that hardly betray the unusual circumstances in which this show was created.

Much has been made in the press of the obvious comparisons with The Trip, but that makes it sound derivative and although the slightly vexed two-person conversation is structurally similar, Staged actually seems better situated in the faux social-realism of fly-on-the-wall style “mockumentaries” as well the vast body of work generated about life backstage. Staged is more than merely 90-minutes of random banter between actors Michael Sheen and David Tennant, and Evans uses the time to construct a sense of how their personalities and frustrations have consequences for the work they are failing to accomplish.

While largely fictionalised, the border with reality – these are their homes and families – draws a line directly back to the comic seriousness of Victoria Wood’s earnest documentary sketches from the As Seen on TV series, passing through both The Office and This Country as it delineates its scenario so, rather than a workplace or a village, Staged is confined by the video platform and the physical boundary of the protagonist’s homes, using that to drive conversation and elicit reactions.

And this episodic production also speaks to theatre and film’s fascination with itself. At its heart, this is a story about the creative process and much of the humour derives from the ineffectual director losing control of the rehearsal period while mishandling various eruptions of theatre-politics that threaten to derail the play entirely. In this sense, Staged has everything in common with All About Eve, Present Laughter and, more recently, The Understudy (also recorded during lockdown), part of a long history of self-anatomising theatre and film.

As a story, then, Staged sits in this much broader context , giving an added dimension to the interactions between Evans, Tennant and Sheen, providing psychological insight into the fluctuating emotions of characters prevented by the pandemic from doing their jobs. At only 15-18 minutes per episode, these are perfectly pitched bite-sized pieces that can be eeked out or consumed in one sitting via the iPlayer, either way Staged is a richly rewarding experience.

The first episode is predominantly exposition as Evans establishes the premise. Initially it is a little stagey as Simon anxiously waits for lead David to convince Michael to costar in a revival of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and to undertake rehearsals online so they are ahead of the competition when playhouses reopen. Padding around in his dressing gown and staring anxiously at the view, the heightened style is a little broad, but soon settles into an addictive rhythm.

The messes Evans creates for himself are pure sitcom as poor judgement and a lack of authority cause a ripple effect across the series. The consequences are left to a selection of juicy cameo roles in which producer Jo and a series of fabulously-timed guest stars pick up the comedy baton – none of whom should be spoiled in advance, the impact of their big reveal in the show is best discovered in the moment. The biggest of these appears in Episode Three when the original actor that Michael replaced must be told he is off the project. What ensues is a hilarious conversation initially between characters Simon, Michael and David, and then eventually with the guest star as the conferencing technology itself becomes the means of twice catching David out in silly lies that leave him with egg on his face.

Another well-known performer appears in Episode Five as Simon haplessly  recruits another actor to the cast without really having a major part for them, leaving David and Michael agog as they withstand their guest’s aggressively upbeat approach to lockdown. And finally in Episode Six a joyous cameo from a theatre legend drafted in by Simon and producer Jo to get his errant leads and rehearsals back on track. The recurring appearance of Nina Sosanya as fierce producer Jo is wonderful, and while you long to see more of her dismissive cool, her rationed appearances are, at the same time, just enough to pep-up the action as she savagely berates Simon’s failures. Listen out for her unseen assistant’s hysterical quip about furloughing him.

All of this builds a strong frame within which the two leads can shape their performances, the tenure of which ebbs and flows throughout the series as they bicker and support one another in what are two very game performances. The chemistry that Sheen and Tennant have developed overcomes their physical distance. As egos clash over credits, they force each other to stand in the corner for lying and brutally criticise each other’s appearance and performances – David is “cartoonish” according to Michael, while Michael is “mumbly” in David’s view – the enduring affection and respect for one another defies their socially distant technological interactions. Changing the credits at the beginning and end of every episode to reflect the discussions and dramas within is also a very nice touch.

The character of David is given the broadest context in some ways with scenes filmed around his home, participating in rehearsal calls from different rooms while interacting with his family or dealing with the pressure of lockdown. He is the more introspective of the two, and Tennant creates a sense of isolation and purposelessness in David, a man lost without the work that defines him. Wearing the same costume throughout, the strain of being trapped at home overwhelms him and he spirals into a kind of functioning depression as the series draws on, struggling to focus or find any creative satisfaction in the stunted play rehearsals.

Yet, Tennant doesn’t let the audience feel too sorry for him, tempering his creation with less appealing traits including a self-absorption that leaves his wife to manage their five children while almost neglecting their care in favour of calling Michael when he is required to parent. David also lies and manipulates other characters to avoid difficult confrontations which end up rebounding on him in a number of amusing ways, his sulky annoyance at being caught out in Episode Three is a highlight in an overall performance that is the essence of tragicomic.

Michael’s point of view is quite different, and the webcam angle is the only one the audience sees from his perspective. Other aspects of his life are referenced in conversation, but this singular view adds a layer of privacy to his character that fits the slightly belligerent disdain with which he regards the entire process and especially his Director. There is a different kind of ego in Michael which Sheen plays up to, one based on his professional success and lack of rejection. Some of the most entertaining conversations with David involve a sniping comparison of their theatre credits and this version of Michael thirsts for praise.

Michael is a far less introspective character than David, so softer tones are added in the concern for an elderly neighbour, a conversation that escalates across the series as he is blackmailed for secreting empty bottles in her recycling bin and eventually becomes involved in something more concerning. Sheen keeps Michael’s inner world under wraps to a degree, talking largely about work and nonsense but rarely giving much away about his emotional state. Yet, there is also plenty of humour in Michael’s continual ire with an argument in Episode Four one of his best moments while his menacing tendency to loom into the camera shows a technical understanding of film that proves extremely adept.

As their long-suffering partners Georgia Tennant has the best of it, a superwoman figure able to manage their many children, help a friend give birth, sell a novel and support her husband – mirroring the actor’s real self where she has additional hats of actor, photographer and producer. She has a naturalness on screen that suits the tone entirely and amusingly refuses to indulge David’s maudlin demands for attention. Sheen’s partner Anna Lundberg is less successful and while her wider life is more limited, Lundberg’s performance is too knowing, not quite meshing with the understated, conversational silliness of the very British humour.

In just three months, we have come a very long way in the quality and invention of shows created under socially distanced conditions. The success of Staged lies in the strength of its premise feeding through the structural and visual storytelling concept. How quickly Evans and his team have learned to get the most from the technology available, making a virtue of the video calling platforms we are all enduring. The fictionally lethargic Sheen and Tennant (or should that be Tennant and Sheen) might not be first out of the gate with their Pirandello, but while we wait for theatres to reopen, watched slowly or in one sitting, you’ll be glad to share a bit of lockdown with them both.

All six episodes of Staged are available on the BBC iPlayer for at least a year or screening on Wednesdays on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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


Review of the Year and What to See in 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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