Tag Archives: Donmar Warehouse

Appropriate – Donmar Warehouse

Appropriate - Donmar Warehouse

Family troubles are an essential subject for drama, particularly the difficult relationships between parent and child, as well as strained interactions between siblings. Plenty of writers are keen to explore the complex possibilities that the family unit can offer; Chekhov found plenty of variety in the roles, expectations and desires of his Three Sisters, and Shakespeare used the same format with the competing daughters of King Lear. More recently, Jack Thorne used three siblings struggling with a parental legacy of social change while now Branden Jacobs-Jenkins builds his narrative around two brothers and their elder sister drawn home to sell their family’s plantation house after the death of their father. With expectations of responsibility and questions of parental favoritism, three turns out to be a significant number.

Appropriate premiered in the States in 2014 and now makes its UK debut as part of Michael Longhurst’s first season at the Donmar Warehouse. Europe was a clear statement of intent from the new Artistic Director, an unusual almost abstract work that spoke to ideas of community, society and the creation of shallow boundaries of exclusion. Appropriate equally pulls no punches in its examination of the ever-presence of history and the extent to which we ever fully know those we love. Longhurst is taking a broad canvas approach to his programme, telling intimate stories focused on a small group of people but with a much wider resonance for how we define and determine the values we live by.

Jacobs-Jenkins’s play has three key drivers; first unpicking the decades-old relationships between three very different siblings which are discovered through detailed character study and the shifting nature of their conversations across a 24-hour period; second Jacobs-Jenkins looks at how attitudes, expectations and behavioural lessons are passed down the generations to understand how children actively differ from their parents and the outlooks they osmotically absorb to frame those behaviours; and finally, the central narrative is dominated by a pseudo-mystery plot in which the discovery of an unsavoury and ethically dubious photo album alters everyone’s perspective on their own past and its meaning.

It is the first of these which is by far the most successful aspect of Appropriate, and one that links Jacobs-Jenkins to the great American dramatists of the last hundred years. Character is at the heart of these plays and managing their interaction is a skill that can seem effortless with a great dramatist. Act One is possibly Appropriate’s most interesting and carefully drawn section as the audience is immediately and bracingly immersed in the middle of a contentious family arrangement. Toni and Bo are playing-out years of the same fight about providing day-to-day care or monetary support for the ailing father bolstered by petty resentments, jealousies and assumptions about the other’s lives with their own spouses and children.

Into this wanders Frank (now styling himself as Franz), the younger brother with a shady secret and a much younger fiancee who hasn’t been seen for 10-years and now expects his share of the estate sale as well as a chance to make amends. What unfolds here gives rise to and sets in motion the contentious business of the rest of the play, whilst instantly conveying the troubled complexities of a family that we, as outsiders, will never fully understand.

Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Ola Ince for the Donmar, commands this first Act with skill, creating a densely wordy but fascinating slice of Lafayette family life where even the most mundane discussions about sorting their father’s effects are loaded with recrimination, grievance and expectation. In these early scenes there are tones of Tennessee Williams, Tracy Letts and August Wilson in the creation of the potentially combustible family dynamic, and the inter-generational clashes of perspective that underscores the story.

The unfolding pace with its narrative dead-ends and focus on the small everyday conversations that eventually unite to form a tapestry-like impression of their family are also reminiscent of Annie Baker whose plays The Flick and John have been widely celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. As a writer, Jacobs-Jenkins sees clearly how his unti fits into the wider socio-historic and political context of the South, but also how they co-exist in their more modern urban experience of US professional living in the northern States.

What unfolds in the other strands of the play is less self-assured, never quite matching up to the promise of this opening portion, and Jacobs-Jenkins moves away from these core sentiments where the purpose of Appropriate becomes a little muddled. The stories given to the younger generation are predominantly played as comedy, and while this may not be intentional, it is harder to accept the credibility of characters who feel like thinly-drawn stereotypes from every sardonic, grumpy teenager textbook without adding meaningfully to the overall story. The comedy can amuse but too often it either misses the mark or competes with Appropriate’s dramatic structure, as with the farcical fight two-thirds of the way through, making the three siblings more ridiculous than empathetic – the fact you retain an interest in Toni and Bo especially is credit to how well they are drawn.

There is also a strand of mysticism and haunting that feels at best half-hearted, as though Jacobs-Jenkins was unable to decide if he wanted to write a saga, a comedy of a ghost story. These spooky happenings include mysterious breezes and poltergeist-type activity – ably created by designer Fly Davis and the stage management team – such as lamps switching on unexpectedly and ornaments falling over. There is frequent reference to the barely visible graveyard beyond the window in which the bodies of plantation slaves were buried, and the characters of Frank and his girlfriend River are motivated by a New Age sensibility where spiritual connection to the earth and its rhythms are their grounding point.

But while these strands exist and the question of how the building’s heritage affects the modern family is uppermost, the ghostly elements are fairly light-weight and hardly integral to the central story. The ideas compete for attention with the comedy and family aspects without feeling fully formed as a concept or properly woven through the action. What works best is Jacobs-Jenkins’s sense of reality through the charged and often pounding dialogue that so effectively captures the family dynamic.

To emphasise this, Davis has designed a detailed set that revels in the infinite detail of the former patriarch’s lifestyle. This absent character is well conjured through the hoarded junk that overwhelmingly litters the living room set at the start of the play as Toni picks her way through ancient cameras, dolls, books and tat from an entire life. But beneath, Davis subtly suggests the grandeur of these plantation houses with a sweeping (now uncarpeted) staircase, a decorated frieze around the upper level and the large windows with fitted shutters to protect from tropical storms. It is evocative enough to feel like Big Daddy’s home from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Boss Finley’s mansion from Sweet Bird of Youth, a feeling of heat and oppression hanging among the faded grandeur.

Central to this reverence for the past is Monica Dolan’s Toni who struggles to accept the various aspersions cast on her beloved father by the rest of the family and their readiness to leap to conclusions with only an unmarked set of photographs as evidence. Dolan suggests Toni’s fury throughout the play as a having an ebb and flow that reacts to events but always places herself at the centre of conversations. As the senior sibling and matriarch, Toni is hugely resentful of the disproportionate share of caring she has had to undertake first for her brothers and later for their father, unappreciatedly sacrificing her own relationships to tend to the family. Many of the arguments that follow stem from this perceived disparity in fairness.

But Dolan is such a wonderful stage actor because she never lets Toni feel out of reach of the audience. Her volability and competitive control are sympathetic as she suggests deeper vulnerabilities stemming from the expectations placed on her as the eldest, and an inability to measure-up to Bo especially. Whether she is seen by them as a good sister, daughter and mother-figure combust with some sympathy in Dolan’s layered and thoughtful performance.

Matching her is Steven Mackintosh as the second child Bo, a family man clinging to a successful job and feeling the pressure to assume financial responsibility for his less self-assured siblings while raising his own children with solid moral values. Pulled in many directions by his wife and sister, Mackintosh’s Bo appears as a man with no clear desire of his own, a peacekeeping middle child in some respects navigating between the contentious elements in his life which bending under the weight of his own barely voiced concerns.

But it is later in the play when his own perspective comes into focus and Mackintosh presents a man trying to do the right thing while dealing with a variety of unspoken pressures to be the right kind of man in the right kind of job with the right kind of values. Exhausted by this, there is an underlying chemistry with Dolan’s Toni where Bo can be his true self, the long relationship with his elder sister suggesting that even on the basic level no one can entirely escape their past. Notable among the supporting characters is Jaimi Barbakoff as Bo’s wife, a prissy helicopter parent unafraid to speak her mind to the wider family that came with her marriage as soon as she senses any threat to her children’s morality.

Appropriate is part of a larger strand of American drama that uses the domestic to examine big socio-political questions about the modern era in an attempt to reframe what we know about the present. And while a couple of its elements are underdone, using the three-sibling structure Jacobs-Jenkins explores how even fairly recent national history can be sanitised and reduced when examined from only one perspective. Appropriate suggests that the past is never just the past.

Appropriate is at the Donmar Warehouse until 5 October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Sweat – Donmar Warehouse

Sweat - Donmar Warehouse

The decline in manufacturing industries had a far-reaching and indelible effect on the UK and US throughout the later years of the twentieth-century, characterised by the growth of services and office work in place of skilled physical and manual labour integral to product development. But too often debates and discussions about this shift in output have been too theoretical, confined to economists, political commentators and historians eager to explain the rise and fall of Trade Unions, the challenges facing Britain and America on the world stage or the growing disenfranchisement of huge numbers of working-class voters in areas of significant industrial decline. What we so rarely see amidst the economic models and pie charts are the experiences of the people living through it, the complete powerlessness of workers whose jobs are relocated abroad, the factory that generations of their family have been loyal to turning against them, and the area’s absolute dependence on that one workplace.

Lynn Nottage’s Pullitzer Prize-winning play Sweat comes to London for the first time, examining the personal and local consequences of a firm’s strategic decision to change the way it operates and revealing the void it leaves behind. Based on a series of interviews with workers in Pennsylvania and book-ending the George W. Bush administration, Sweat is the story of a group of factory workers whose lives are shaped by a series of incendiary decisions taken by the plant owners with little regard for the individual consequences. Two families whose matriarchs and sons are good friends compete for a promotion that will take one of them off the factory floor and into the remote management sphere, but just as the dust is settling big changes put everyone at risk, pitting new supervisor Cynthia against best friend Tracey. Divided loyalties upset what no one recognised as a delicate balance and soon friendships are tested, bitterness and recrimination explode, and with racial tensions heightened, someone gets hurt.

Nottage’s stunning play sets-up a sense of inevitability from the start, a Greek tragedy waiting to happen in which a brief prologue reveals two young men – Chris and Jason – newly released from prison for a crime we know will eventually be unveiled. It is 2008 and already there is a hint of opportunities lost and hopelessness about what they now have to look forward to. Nottage then cuts back to 2000 and the story begins its semi-tragic course and, while we have some perspective on the ending, Nottage’s skill is to embed the audience so deeply in the town and the lives of its people, to make you care so much for their pride and essential innocence, that you almost forget what is coming, revelling in their warmth and humanity so that you long for a happier ending than any of them can ever have.

There are clear comparisons with Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and, while the driving tragedy is more dispersed and external in Sweat, the idea of working communities threatened by outsiders, worries about immigration and the nature of unstoppable change are very similar. There is an interesting strand about loyalty and broken trust which mirrors Miller’s concern with honour and duty in defined communities, most obviously explored within the friendship group but also strongly referenced in the worker-employer relationship that breaks down so badly in the second half of the play.

We are told several times that the plant sustains whole families, employing husbands and wives as well as their children. Generations of townsfolk have worked there, it is intrinsically linked to the town’s professional and personal history, the source of their identity. Nottage also reveals how exclusive entrance to this club has been with workers only ever hired if recommended by an existing employee, and through this the scale of betrayal becomes clear as devoted locals discover their dedication is not reciprocated, that the factory management was only loyal as long as they were getting a good deal – when the economic circumstances change they manipulate this long-service to force a change in the business.

The somewhat poisonous effect of this workplace then begins to infect and toxify the other relationships in the play. From the start the audience know it is a dangerous place to work, the cause of Stan’s limp and the reason he now manages the bar in which much of the action takes place. A racial dimension slowly seeps in which we know from the prologue will lead to Jason pursing white supremacist activities off-stage but begins subtly with former friends turning against each other and looking for weapons. This is later compounded by the presence of Oscar, a barman of Colombian origin with no loyalty to the town who wants to work at the factory to earn more money and reinforcing local fears that cheaper workers will undercut them.

But Sweat is ultimately a female story and at its heart is the growing distance between friends Cynthia and Tracey who have shared more than 25-years of ups and downs working together on the factory floor. Through them, Nottage examines all kinds of labour politics, not least the struggle between tradition and aspiration at the individual and community level. Set around three birthdays held in the bar – two protagonists and their underwritten alcoholic friend Jessie – over time we see a happy harmonious group ripped apart by jealousy and competition, and despite their growing distance, the birthday is a useful device to credibly bring the characters together. The second birthday is incredibly awkward while the third descends into bitter argument as external pressures reshape how these women see each other.

When Cynthia wins the promotion, Nottage is able to tap into wider discussion about the fractious relationship between manual workers and administrative management, a class divide that explores the declining power of the Trade Unions to protect their members, as well as the individual cost to Cynthia of becoming ‘other’ – promotion from the floor is a badge of honour which becomes a millstone. The “us and them” rhetoric woven through the play (also present in the wider context about fears of immigration) is a familiar one seen in British cultural responses to strike action as diverse as Made in Dagenham, Billy Elliot and even Carry On at Your Convenience when Sid James’s foreman character insists he cannot join the company board because he’s “a worker”. What Nottage does so well is to make all of this painfully real for the characters, emphasising how desperately people want to better themselves but how easily they are accused of being class traitors when they do.

Clare Perkins is full of joy as the play opens, Cynthia is having a wonderful time in a job she loves, drinking with her friends, her life is settled and content. Or so it appears on the outside, somewhere Cynthia wants more and as she transitions to a management role Perkins shows something switches off inside her, an almost imperceptible shift to greater responsibility. Her complex homelife with a dope-addict husband offers a few wistful moments on the passing of the years, but Perkins’s Cynthia is a warm, caring woman who has done her best to raise her son well while refusing to be taken advantage of.

In the new role Perkins suggest both the pride it gives her to be chosen for management after more than 25-years of work, but also the sorrow as it costs her the stability of her friendships. You see how exasperated Cynthia becomes with Tracey’s refusal to be happy for her, and the confusion of their sudden enmity. Cynthia believes she is still the same person fighting for her community from the inside, but Perkins subtly suggests a change in her persona, the concealing of vital information until the last possible moment and a stronger hint of self-preservation than we saw earlier in the show. “Was it worth it” is the question that haunts her, but Nottage is too skilled a writer to reveal the answer, instead the inevitability of Sweat shows us that all paths ultimately lead to the same destination.

Martha Plimpton’s Tracey is more comfortable in herself as the play begins but reveals greater insecurities as the story unfolds. A widow thanks to the factory, Tracey is ballsy, stubborn and willing to say exactly what she thinks regardless of the cost, she is no one’s fool and hates the idea of being hoodwinked especially by her best friend. Plimpton also draws out Tracey’s greater love for heritage and foolish belief that her family’s decades of service will be rewarded.

When she loses out on the promotion, Plimpton reveals how thin the layer of decency has always been and Tracey descends into bitterness, finding reasons to blame her own lack of agency on Cynthia’s failure to manage and unveiling a surprising bigotry, a low-blow that feeds into the race and immigration subtheme that has much to say about modern political divisions that have subsequently shaped US and British government. Yet we retain a shred of feeling for both women, Nottage’s writing and these strong leading performances show cause and effect so clearly, helping the audience to understand how little either could do to prevent what happens to them.

There are meaningful performances of the secondary male characters including Osy Ikhile as Cynthia’s son Chris, a decent young man caught up in events that cost him the bright future he once had and dreams of escaping the town that no one else can. Patrick Gibson is a little too decent to entirely convince as Jason with some of the inflections and movements a touch over-studied, but he does exude a menace in the 2008 scenes which works much better. Stuart McQuarrie is both counsellor and friend as stalwart barman Stan with his own connection to the factory that ties his greater knowledge of the customers into the importance of the plant to the town, while Sebastian Viveros as the more mercenary outsider Oscar finds himself at the eye of a troubling storm.

Nottage’s world is richly detailed and full of pain, pain for the limited opportunities left by industrial decline, pain for the communities and individuals destroyed by firms who place profit above staff satisfaction, and pain for the crippling effect it has had right across the economic and political domain, creating rents in the social fabric that have turned people against one another. Sweat is a beautiful piece of writing about small-town American but it could just as easily have been set in the UK, the effects are the same and the life Nottage so vividly describes is as real today as it was in 2008. Our industrial past is pulling against some other kind of future, and there’s little any of us can really do to stop it.

Sweat is at the Donmar Warehouse until 26 January with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Measure for Measure – Donmar Warehouse

Measure for Measure - Donmar Warehouse

As Josie Rourke enters her final months as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, schemes like Barclays Front Row and now Klaxon offering low-priced tickets to often sold-out shows, along with a focus on female-led theatre will be her legacy. Fitting then that part of her directorial swansong should be an inspired and experimental take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In a year of revelations about the abuse of power and sexual misconduct, the timing couldn’t be better for this intriguing tale of blackmail, morality and duty.

Gender-blind casting has becoming fairly standard in recent years, at the most basic level giving female actors the chance to play some of drama’s greatest roles, while also offering alternative perspectives on familiar scenarios. But one thing you never see is the same character simultaneously from the male and female perspective, so while a female Henry V might be intriguing, audiences cannot compare this instantly with an equivalent male performance and must wait until some other production comes along. Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure changes all that.

On the same night, either side of the interval, the roles of Angelo and Isabella are shared by Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell, while the production also divides its time between the early seventeenth century and 2018. There were various possibilities for this approach – the actors could play the roles on alternate nights as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller did with Frankenstein, or the swap could simply happen half way through the play. Instead, O’Rourke plumps for the most unusual option, slashing the text to a core 90 minutes and playing it through twice, that is exactly the same text once with Lowden as Angelo and Atwell as Isabella, and after the interval, playing it all again with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines (but called Isabella) and Lowden performing as Isabella (but called Angelo). It’s a risky strategy with a show that ultimate clocks in at around three hours, but it’s a daring endeavour that is richly rewarding.

The Duke of Vienna decides to take a holiday and leave his reluctant friend Angelo in charge, making him the city’s leading judge. A pure and moral region, Claudio is accused of fornication and the sober Angelo sentences him to death. Encouraged to plead for his life, Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice nun, duly visits Angelo who is instantly captivated by her, offering to spare her brother’s life in return for her virginity. Forced to choose between her body and her soul, can Angelo’s terrible power be bested?

The easy abuse of power and how it changes people’s behaviour is a core theme for Shakespeare, throwing the individual’s moral code into flux. Most often for murderous or greedy ends, characters pursue power to alter their own status, to win a higher position in government as happens in Hamlet and Macbeth or to jealously disrupt the purer life of someone else as in Othello. In Measure for Measure, power is wielded purely for sexual purposes, Angelo’s conquest of Isabella won’t later affect the materiality of his circumstances in any way, he propositions her as a temporary distraction, more an exercise in ego than a strategy for higher gain – themes that will resonant strongly with the events of the last year.

All of this comes across really strongly in the first half of the Donmar’s production, largely divested of its subplots, the audience is asked to focus sharply on the central theme of moral and bodily corruption in a show that asks big questions about trading one for the other. But Rourke ensures it’s not an open and shut case, she wants us to consider the opposing positions of Angelo and Isabella, to ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation and to think about the ways in which morality has changed in 400 years. Is Isabella a paragon, a saintly figure to be admired, or is her refusal to succumb to Angelo’s desires, and thereby assure her brother’s death, a cruel and stubborn act?

In this first section, the sympathies deliberately sway. Jack Lowden’s Angelo is an interesting proposition, a man seemingly driven by right and duty, applying the law as it stands but without compassion or clemency. His first encounter with Isabella clearly ignites a rapid and unexpected passion that he is unused to experiencing, and Lowden makes us believe he genuinely falls for her – it appears to mean far more to him than just having the upper hand.

But Lowden never lets us forget that how Angelo translates that emotion is monstrous, however genuine his feeling for Isabella, the scene in which he makes his intentions clear is deeply uncomfortable. As he looms in on her, riven with lust, she comprehends his purpose exactly, and Atwell is superb in relaying the powerlessness and fear that Isabella feels in that moment, frozen and shaking with tears that becomes a striking reminder that Angelo’s unrequited love for her can never excuse his invasive manipulation of her body and mind.

As the story is resolved the production flashes forward to 2018 and replays the first scene again, this time with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines but named as Isabella. After the interval, the play resumes from the condemnation of Claudio, and Atwell’s approach is slightly different to Lowden’s – although both are equally valid and fascinating creations. She makes the character more beguiling, more openly lustful and confident, while no less deceptively calculating. This Isabella has greater self-assurance than the equivalent Angelo in Act One, who seemed a cold man remote from the world and almost awoken by his passion. Instead, Atwell plays her as a sharp-minded woman seizing on a tasty opportunity that suddenly presents itself, worldly and entitled.

Her scenes with Lowden now are quite different, without the physical height and strength to overcome him, she manoeuvres him into position and waits to pounce. Openly admiring him, Atwell has a way of tilting her head to peer at Angelo (reading as Isabella), emphasising her social if not muscular dominance over him. Instead of the devout virgin of 1604, Lowden gives us a former bad boy who has found redemption at a Christian retreat and Isabella’s pursuit of him tests his resolve – although, it is more awkward than uncomfortable to watch him extricate himself from the proposition scene, perhaps because he seems more acquainted with the world and better able to handle himself than the trapped young woman of the original.

It may seem a chore to watch the same show through twice and you do need a bit of resolve to stick with it, but the outcome is worth the investment. There are two very interesting things happening in this finely honed and balanced production; first one way to read the approach is that the Isabella and Angelo of the second half are the direct consequence of the Isabella and Angelo of the first. Forget the fact they swap lines and imagine what actually happened to the characters at the end of Shakespeare’s original play, who did they become in the future?

Here Rourke asks us to consider, that although Isabella was young, innocent and seemingly incorruptible in terms of her chastity, did having the power of life and death over another man (even for the right reasons) ultimately corrupt her? Did close exposure to that male world of politics and power create a future scenario in which the one-time victim becomes the perpetrator? Atwell certainly hints that the fiery certainty of Isabella in Act One could be the same woman in Act Two only older and more experienced. Her righteousness after the interval seems to suggest the dying embers of an original morality now corrupted by authority.

Likewise, it is entirely conceivable that the dastardly Angelo has spent the intervening years seeking atonement for his sins, arriving at the retreat as a form of therapy to correct his poor behaviour. Like Atwell, Lowden makes this interpretation entirely credible drawing on his portrait of initial sobriety as Act One Angelo to inform and make sense of his Act Two desire to seek religious penance for his earlier behaviour. His reaction to Isabella’s proposition is then deepened by the idea that he now understands the damaging effect of his original behaviour, hence the determination not to succumb. So the question really becomes – are Angelo and Isabella essentially two sides of the same coin, an eternal loop of corruption and reclamation?

Secondly, are we also being asked to question our own judgement about the differences between the two scenarios? Morally they are inexcusably the same, a more powerful individual manipulating a weaker one is unquestionably wrong, but watching it, the production is also testing our own conscience and whether we feel that a gender-swapped twenty-first century Isabella propositioning Angelo is less troubling that the seventeenth-century original. Does society still innately believe that a woman, lacking in physical strength, cannot cajole a man into sex in the same way? Part of that is in the equivalent performances in which Lowden’s cold Angelo is more repellent than Atwell’s slightly coquettish and personable Isabella, but this Measure for Measure asks tough questions – are we really as liberal as we’d like to think? Using power to manipulate another person should be the same regardless of gender but it is intriguing how the alternative perspective of the second half plays with our prejudices on this issue.

Cynically, a double dose of Measure for Measure shouldn’t work, but this re-gendered combination is a gamble that pays off, sending you home with plenty to think about for days afterwards. Peter McKintosh’s simple set, combined with Howard Harrison’s interesting lighting design easily evokes two eras, allowing the power of the lower-lit traditional section to speak for itself uncluttered by scenery, while adding a livelier feel for 2018. The overall concept adds some knowing touches to the modern era with conversations transposed to phone calls and the local prostitutes given an Eastern European background.

Among the supporting cast, Nicholas Burns adds a creepy touch as the helpful undercover Duke with an agenda of his own. His pursuit of Isabella is as disturbing as Angelo’s showing that predators may come disguised as white knights, while Burns becomes more physical in his attempt to seduce Angelo in 2018 which contrasts well with Isabella’s more implicit approach. Matt Bardock is equally notable as the rascally Lucio, while Sule Rimi gives the imprisoned Claudio plenty of injured resentment at his sister / brother’s refusal to help.

As Josie Rourke steps down from the Donmar, this show is one to remember for all the right reasons. In a year of very strong Shakespeare interpretations – Julius Caesar, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra especially – this Measure for Measure has taken the biggest gamble of them all and won. With two terrific performers in Atwell and Lowden each giving two absorbing performances, it is an evening that opens your eyes to how differently Shakespeare’s text can be interpreted and how changing gender can give theatre an added political power.

Measure for Measure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 November. Tickets are sold-out but extra seats will available via Klaxon every Monday and day seats at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Aristocrats – Donmar Warehouse

Aristocrats - Donmar Warehouse

Lovers of Irish drama will be in their element this summer as London theatres host three major productions with a fourth – a new Martin McDonagh play – arriving at The Bridge in early autumn. Until then, a top-notch revival of McDonagh’s black comic treat The Lieutenant of Inishmore is playing to packed houses at the Noel Coward with Aidan Turner no small draw, while equally beloved TV star Colin Morgan leads a wonderful revival of Brien Friel’s Translations at the National Theatre which examines identity, language and community at a pivotal moment in Anglo-Irish history. Joining them is a Donmar Warehouse production of Friel’s lesser known play Aristocrats, a work so rarely considered that it hasn’t yet warranted its own Wikipedia page.

Written in 1979, just a year before the much stronger Translations, and peppered with the trademark Friel lyricism, Aristocrats never feels like an entirely successful construction. Previously staged by The National Theatre in 2005 with a then barely known Andrew Scott, Gina McKee and Derval Kirwan, as well as a 2014 production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, this latest version will likely be a first viewing for much of the audience. Being Friel, it’s stuffed with themes and meaningful moments, but a relatively short run-time means its characters and dramatic arc never entirely convince.

At a now dilapidated “Great House” overlooking Ballybeg, the O’Donnell children gather for the wedding of Claire and her much older fiancé Jerry (who we never meet). With their ageing father slowly dying upstairs, cared for by elder sister Judith, the siblings reunite for one last event, Casimir travelling from Heidelberg, while Alice and her villager-husband Eamon return from London. An American journalist writing a book about Catholic Irish aristocracy becomes the catalyst for destruction as a sunny picnic is haunted by memory and dissatisfaction, and the fantasy begins to crumble.

Friel actively creates a Chekhovian flavour, paying homage to a writer whose work Friel adapted many times. Somehow, the play never quite reaches the subtle heights of its inspiration, but there are echoes of Chekhov in both the setting and many of the play’s themes. The poverty of the ruling classes is something the Russian dramatist referred to many times, as once great families are forced to sell the ancestral home, to downsize while simultaneously watching former villagers rise in their place. We see this in The Cherry Orchard as Lopakhin, a self-made man from the peasant class, becomes the social equal of the nobility, and Friel reflects this in the marriage of Alice and Eamon, the grandson of the former O’Donnell housekeeper. And while considerably less successful, the switch from romanticised memory of happier days to the hard reality of money and change is pure Chekhov, forcing characters to face difficult truths.

Part of the problem is that to establish enough information about the family situation and how each individual fits into the story Friel has to include considerable exposition. So, much of Act One, which takes place across two scenes, feels like an elaborate set-up with clunky descriptions of how everyone came to be here told to Tom (Paul Higgins), the journalist, who becomes a rather crude expository device. Friel attempts to soften the blow by making us wonder how much of what we hear is true and whether the family are actively deceiving Tom or themselves in repeating the celebrity-filled stories they’ve heard about their family history. By the end of Act One, Friel has done enough to intrigue, but the overly forced set-up leaves you dramatically unsatisfied, which Lyndsey Turner’s production cannot quite resolve.

The notably shorter Act Two is much stronger. Set some days later where a crisis has been reached and the four siblings must now face-the-future, here the nods to Chekhov work much better, which in the Donmar’s production, brings with it a more sombre tone. While the business is briskly managed, there is a clear contrast with the wistful picnic scene, as you feel that childhood has been packed away and most of the remaining family members head-off with greater certainty about who they are, no longer clouded by delusion and fantasy.

The play is rather overloaded with themes and references that receive only cursory exploration. Friel hints that the now decrepit former Judge was once a terrible father to his children which, coupled with their mother’s suggested suicide, has affected them all in slightly different ways, although this is never fully uncovered. Equally, the focus of Tom’s research on Catholic aristocracy creates a sense of historic isolation around the family in a nation filled with Protestant landlords, and this is reflected in the O’Donnell’s lack of sentimental attachment to the house or the area. Turner uses this to imply a real separation between the family and the village, as though the two coexist but lacking the feudal concept of noblesse oblige. However, other than Alice’s business-like rejection of inheritance in Act Two, there’s little time in the story to really tease out the national, economic and political consequence of being in a Catholic noble family.

Es Devlin has created a simple duck-egg blue sunken stage littered with laced cushions, beautiful fruit bowls and blowsy peonies, that gives an impression of Edwardian Anglicisation. Until Alice walks on in her lurid orange 1970s maxi-dress, it is deliberately difficult to quite pin down the era, and Devlin’s modern box with classical accents reflects Friel’s concern with identity and external influences shaping Irish heritage. Rather than a fussy mansion set Devlin uses a dollshouse for simplicity (although this has become an overly common reference, last seen in The Inheritance), while the backdrop is slowly peeled away by one actor to reveal a classical scene of a mother presiding over a picnic, reinforcing this idea of the family suffering stemming from childhood trauma.

Despite the core family being dominated by the three sisters, it is the male roles that feel more substantial. David Dawson’s Casimir is a talkative returnee, eager to make the picnic just-so and thrilled by the chance to relive so many childhood memories and games. Casimir is an effete and light presence, so Dawson plays him as a dream-like figure, almost as though the whole character has stepped directly from the Edwardian past. This adds quite well to the concept of truth that runs through the show, and several times other characters question how real Casimir’s German wife and three children really are, which reinforces the eagerness of the fake croquet and similar games that shape the picnic scene. Dawson intriguingly plays-up this ambiguity so we’re never quite sure if his Casimir is a just pleasant man, delighted with his life or a fantasist hiding behind a pretence of family.

The sisters are distinct but not quite so well drawn. Elaine Cassidy’s Alice is a troubled figure, the only member of the family to truly embrace the late 70s aesthetic in Moritz Junge’s psychedelic costume for the character. Alice has relatively little to say for much of the show, hungover, she ominously stalks the picnic trying to find respite from her implied troubles that seem to proceed from more than just a headache. Cassidy conveys a deep dissatisfaction with Alice’s life, an alcoholic who is less than enamoured of her husband or this return to a place she once escaped. But Friel doesn’t give us the chance to find out much more, so we never really get to know how her childhood created the unhappy woman she has become.

Eileen Walsh as matriarch Judith doesn’t appear until well into the first Act, having spent years taking care of their ailing father. She has an interesting monologue at the picnic in which she describes her intense daily routine as a substitute mother-figure caring for sister Claire and tending to their father, in which Walsh implies an erosion of her own humanity that permanent service has caused. But later, Walsh also shows us some steel as Judith refuses to be guided by her siblings and deliberately ignores references to a former relationship with Eamon. Again, why Judith has ended-up here and what this means for her character are left unexplored by Friel, although her future doesn’t seem any more hopeful.

The baby of the family Claire, played by Aisling Loftus, is even more dreamlike than her brother Casimir who she is clearly closest to. About to marry a man more than 30 years her senior, we learn very little about Claire except her love of playing the piano – here depicted by holding sheets of music implying more O’Donnell fantasy – and playing games. An accomplished young lady in the traditional sense, Loftus’s Claire, like Dawson, becomes a hazy dreamlike figure, another echo from the Edwardian past. But the effect of her childhood, why she is seeking a father-figure and the relationship with her sisters is left aside.

Beyond the family, Emmet Kirwan’s Eamon is a gregarious figure with an undertone of something darker, a possible bully who we learn early on struck his wife the previous day. Interestingly, with antecedents in domestic service at the House, Eamon seems most protective of the place, expressing a possessiveness that the family don’t share. Friel tells us he was once a villager and, at one time or another, romanced all the sisters, but the nature of those relationship aren’t fully considered, even though Eamon represents the rise of the “new man”, coming to dominate the aristocratic people he would once have bowed to.

In a summer of great Irish drama, this feels unsatisfactory by comparison. Visually, Turner’s image of broken modernity is an interesting one, with old and new pulling against each other throughout the play. With press night ahead this week, other than relishing the charm of Friel’s language, there’s little for the cast to improve because the faults in Aristocrats lie with Friel. This production draws-out all of the core themes but cannot overcome the play’s reliance on heavy exposition and failure to satisfactorily resolve its own questions about the past of these characters. If you have the choice, probably see Translations instead.

Aristocrats is at the Donmar Warehouse until 22 September. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Donmar Warehouse

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Donmar Warehouse

While few would now agree that your schooldays are the best of your life, we would still admit to being shaped by our favourite teachers. Looking back, whether at primary or secondary level, the best classroom experiences came from discovering an aptitude for a particular subject or settling on a future career that the best teachers always encouraged, no matter how outlandish. Equally important as you grew up were the teachers who could communicate with you as individuals rather than another homogeneous set of pupils, whose intelligence, interest and enthusiasm would earn your respect. No wonder that drama has so frequently turned to the schoolroom for inspiration.

From Goodbye Mr Chips to Dangerous Minds on film, not to mention Carry on Teacher, to Rattigan’s The Browning Version and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys on stage, the teacher-student relationship is continually re-examined. While there has never been more pressure on modern teachers with strict curricula, endless testing and copious paperwork, fictional tutors are, for the most part, curiously free of such restrictions, able to use their unconventional methods to set their charges on the road to a brighter future. One of the most famous literary inventions of them all, is also the most controversial – is Jean Brodie a ‘progressive’ educator or a worrying menace to the mind of her ‘girls’.

A hundred years since the birth of novelist Muriel Spark, her 1961 tale The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been adapted for the Donmar Warehouse by Blackbird playwright David Harrower and directed by Polly Findlay. Page to stage adaptations can be perilous, truncating complex inner voices and motivations to fit the conventions of theatre that on the whole tends to work to a standard 2.5 hour run time, includes an interval at a suitable dramatic moment, and relies on certain expectations of conflict and resolution to propel the plot while sustaining audience attention – some theatre has moved away from this prescriptive approach, but most retains the format. All of this is the enemy of the novel, where authors have long experimented with flexible forms, shifting narratives and prolonged introspection that can seem flat and indulgent when transposed to a visual medium.

This is not the first time Spark’s book has been adapted and several theatrical versions have gone before. Yet, most people will know the 1969 film with Maggie Smith in the title role that allowed Brodie’s most famous phrases to enter the popular consciousness and become synonymous with her performance – to the point of caricature – right down the to genteel Edinburgh accent. This brings its own weight of expectation to Harrower’s new interpretation, with audience members coming anticipating a version of the novel, the film or both, with perhaps a clearly formed idea of how individuals and circumstances should be portrayed. How much viewers enjoy this may depend on their preparedness to relinquish their preconceptions about the characters.

Told in flashback, the story is Sandy’s memory, a former Brodie girl and, as the play begins, about to become a nun planning to take a vow of silence. Tracked down by a journalist who is interested in her previously published book, Sandy starts to talk about her arrival aged 11 at the Marcia Blaine School, where she and a select number of girls – Joyce, Monica, Mary and Jenny – fall under the spell of Miss Brodie, fascinated by her air of freedom, cultural knowledge and political fervour. As the children transform into young women, Miss Brodie’s influence makes its mark on all of them, while her ongoing flirtation with Music Teacher Mr Lowther and Art Teacher Mr Lloyd spills over into all their lives, exposing the extent of her effect on the girls.

While not an especially radical reinterpretation, Harrower has created a version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that recognisably celebrates the original novel and the charisma of its leading lady, while carefully sidestepping any parallels to the famous film. From first to last, the spectre of Maggie Smith and Celia Johsnon are banished, allowing a new cast to give shape and purpose to these roles. It’s a fairly safe production, using a conventional structure that loads the first half with praise and admiration for the inspiring teacher, while the second begins to tear at her motivation.

Harrower spends plenty of time establishing the key characters in the hour before the interval, building-up Miss Brodie as a free-spirit, a vision in scarlet, unwilling to conform to the rules and expectations of Marcia Blaine. A series of classroom scenes reveal her animated, if gossipy, teaching style, and what begins as a willingness to share stories of her life with her 11-year old charges soon includes criticisms of the headmistress and making her personal opinions the definitive response to a variety of topics when she starts to treat the girls as her confidants. Harrower’s adaptation renders this well, offering a sketch of life at the school that opens-up Miss Brodie’s method. Mirroring the girls’ experience, the kindliness of Act One becomes something more complex in Act Two.

After the interval, four years have gone by and the girls, now 15, are in the senior school and not directly taught by Miss Brodie. With so much of the real plot to now fit into the final hour of the show, this production makes clear the shifting affection of some girls has severed the closeness with their former teacher. And while it covers all the key consequences of her teaching style, the Donmar’s adaptation is slightly less successful in emphasising the political and sexual corruption that Miss Brodie advocates, actively using her girls like puppets to vicariously fulfil semi-romantic ideals she refuses to succumb to herself.

Partially, this is a desire to retain a shred of sympathy for the character, not wanting to entirely dismantle the affection that Sandy in particular, and the audience has developed for her. Although this is framed as Sandy’s story, it’s clear from the final scene, which appears out of chronological sequence, that it is Miss Brodie this production wants us to look at rather than the results of her work. The significant moment of political influence that Miss Brodie wields is lightly referenced earlier but the key conversation and its outcome are quickly dispatched in two rapid scenes, likewise the sexual encounter she encourages is glossed over rather than seen as a monstrous attempt to manipulate a young woman. These moments, and the outcomes of Miss Brodie’s intimacy with her set, could be considerably darker, leaving the audience with a more ambiguous image to take home with them.

Lia Williams is an actor who never fails to find exactly the right tone for a character and always brings something fresh to her interpretation. As Miss Brodie, Williams carefully controls every aspect of her interpretation, from the way she carries herself to the particular intonation of the soft Edinburgh accent. Dressed by Designer Lizzie Clachlan in tailored reds and greens to complement a meticulously curled strawberry blonde wig, Williams steps lightly across the stage, arms outstretched, or fingers delicately poised to emphasise her point as she imparts her wisdom to the class. Her physical presence is purposefully contrived to suggest a woman who tightly controls her image, consciously designing the impression of perfection she wants to convey to garner the exact devotional response she desires.

Beneath, there is a warmth to her exuberant tales in which Williams demonstrates how easy it would be for her to charm you, but away from the classroom hints are given of the more sullied desires beneath the surface. The way Williams looks at Edward MacLiam’s Mr Lloyd conveys a raging lust she struggles to hold in check, while actively manipulating the emotions of Angus Wright’s Mr Lowther to feed her vanity while actively dismisses his advances at every turn. As events begin to unravel in Act Two, Williams suggests something almost desperate in Miss Brodie, as her star begins to wane and the affection she ‘demanded’ from the girls dissipates. Although it’s an easy association, there’s something of Blanche Dubois about her, all affectation, secrets and delusion that make you wonder if any of the elaborate stories she’s told – even that of her deceased fiancé – were ever true.

Rona Morison has the more difficult task of portraying Sandy at three different stages of her life – aged 11, 15 and approximately 25 – which isn’t always as clear as it could be. The show’s structure allows director Polly Findlay to cut directly between the elder Sandy discussing events with the Journalist (Kit Young) at the convent and walking directly into the school, but she’s not a character you come to know. Morison does the best with what she is given, but as an observer to much of the action, Sandy’s own motivations, her continuing devotion to Miss Brodie long after the other girls have departed and her crucial role in the conclusion are left fairly unexplored.

Some of the girls are less well-defined, so in a tightly packed two hours and 15 minutes of stage time, there’s only space to see the wider set as Miss Brodie describes them, the intelligent Monica (Grace Saif), the wannabe actress Jenny (Helena Wilson) and meek Mary (Emma Hindle). Nicole Coughlan’s Joyce Emily more complete captures the childlike manner than the other performers, arriving as a sweetly self-conscious and adorable 11-year-old who desperately wants to be included, but feels the pain of not quite finding her own group, while as a 15-year-old Joyce’s political awakening could be given more room in the text, Coughlan imbues Joyce with a naïve idealism and determination that make an impact.

There is good support from Angus Wright’s puppy-dog-like Mr Lowther who only has to be reasonably dull and devoted to Miss Brodie, although his insistance on pressing his feelings in front of the girls adds a nice touch of determined awkwardness. MacLiam’s Mr Lloyd has a small role but cuts a dash as a fairly glamorous figure in his own right, artistic, surprisingly carefree despite his many children and service in the Great War which contrasts well with the staid school atmosphere and makes him a worthy flirtation for Miss Brodie. As Headmistress Miss MacKay, Sylvestra Le Touzel is a granite-like presence, occasionally a little two quiet even for the Donmar’s intimate space, yet her determination to remove Miss Brodie is as calculating as it is cool.

On Clachlan’s tomb-like set, this production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie contrasts cold-learning, and harsh realities with the idea of life experience and vivacity, separated by the ringing of bells that hang from the ceiling signalling the end of lessons and scenes. As the play unfolds, Harrower charts how we come to know the human foibles and failings of the adults in our lives, ones which at an impressionable age can shape you in the wrong way. It’s not quite the crème de la crème, deliberately pacifying some of Miss Brodie’s dark sexual and political influences in order to retain sympathy for her, but it is an enjoyable and distinct adaptation that does make you wonder where your favourite teachers are now and how much they really influenced you.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is at the Donmar Warehouse until 28 July, tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  


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