Tag Archives: Donmar Warehouse

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.

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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  


The Way of the World – Donmar Warehouse

The Way of the World - Donmar Warehouse

Restoration comedy generally takes a rather dim view of marriage; the central lovers may want to overcome every obstacle placed in their path to reach their happy union, but those who are married already want nothing more than to be rid of their boorish, shrewish or philandering spouse. These plays suggest that marriage transforms people and not for the better, so what future awaits the affianced couple? Arguably, it is marriage made for material gain, and between people who are hopelessly incompatible, but William Congreve’s 1700 play The Way of the World shows us that even those people once fancied themselves in love.

The play was written at the latter end of the theatrical form of restoration, as the sobering William and Mary reached the end of their first decade as rulers, offered the throne in place of Charles II’s brother James – an absolutist and a Catholic. While these plays always had a moral element with good and bad getting the ending they deserved, Congreve’s writing introduced the idea of morality of money too. The importance of fortune drives The Way of the World’s plot, peppered with references to dowries and female inheritance, money separates eligible women from those with mere beauty to recommend them.

As the play opens, Fainall is playing cards with the hero Mirabell, who is in love with Millamant, but her aunt, Lady Wishfort, loathes Mirabell and would refuse to pay the £6000 dowry. To trick Lady Wishfort into giving her consent to the match, Mirabell plots to use his manservant, Waitwell, (who he has married to Lady Wishfort’s maid Foible) to impersonate an aristocrat and make advances to the middle-aged aunt, assuming that rescuing her from the indignation would earn her eternal gratitude. Fainall meanwhile lives a semi-separated existence from the wife he no longer loves and who despises him in return, but he cannot survive without her money. Fainall is having an affair with Lady Wishfort’s friend Mrs Marwood who hears of Mirabell’s plan and uses it to help her lover lay claim to the rest of his wife’s fortune.

James Macdonald’s production at the Donmar Warehouse is still finding its feet and while some aspects of the farce are working well, particularly once Mirabell’s plan begins to take shape in Act 3, it needs a few more performances for the actors to find an ease with the lines and for the comedy to really sparkle. It’s early days, but with press night this week, it lacks a little bounce and, while the performances are uniformly impressive, they’re not yet fully relishing the full malice or humour of the lines.

It’s a sluggish and quite static start, and it takes a while for the conversation and the complexities of the inter-related plot to warm-up. There is a lot of crucial information in the early discussion between Mirabell and Fainall, so Macdonald has created what feels like an entirely masculine environment that sets the tone really well, but with lots of comings and goings, as yet unseen characters talked about and intrigues aplenty, there isn’t quite enough clarity to help the audience with setting the scene and confirming the tone.

And this is a problem that runs through the production, which sharply vacillates between rather broad slapstick-like comedy, taut social satire and credible emotional engagement, without quite settling into its groove. There is a lot of sneaky plotting in Act Two and Three which could feel more covert and shadowy, and while Witwoud and Petulant have some amusing scenes, even by the end of the play it’s still not clear what role they have really played in proceedings or what relation they are to the rest of the characters – they may be essential but that hasn’t been conveyed as clearly as it could be. Streamlining the play’s current length – at a rather unjustified three and a half hours – could improve the flow and help to focus on the key elements of the plot.

It’s not all bad, and there are plenty of positives which over a few more performances should help to settle the characters and mannerisms. Once they get going, the farcical elements build well as the manservant disguised as Sir Roland enjoys a hilarious encounter with Lady Wishfort (Haydn Gwynne) in her rooms. It’s an exaggerated scene in which the obviously overacting Waitwell (Alex Beckett) exuberantly declares his love for the garish aunt, growing increasingly hilarious as the seduction becomes progressively more lustful.

Macdonald’s production also emphasises the strength of the female characters, whose multiple forms of power is another highlight – while the men may plot and scheme, ultimately they are beholden to the superior fiscal and social power of the ladies. Lady Wishfort holds the future of all the men entirely in her hands, it is in her gift to bestow Millimant’s much debated £6000 dowry on Mirabelle, while she is the route Fainall chooses for his blackmail plot to extort the remained of his wife’s fortune. The other women are equally well drawn; the fiendish Mrs Marwood utilises her single status to exact revenge on her enemies, while maidservant Foible becomes key to enacting Mirabell’s plot, and even the young love interest Millamant is a scathing and authoritative figure dismissing her multiple lovers with a withering put-down.

Macdonald’s emphasis on materiality is also extremely effective, with even the servants becoming embroiled in their master’s schemes based on some sense of human ownership – who else to enact a vicious rouse to enhance your own personal gain, than the people who depend on you for their livelihood. There is also a fascinating scene between Millamant and Mirabell as they indulge in what is essentially a marital bargain, each outlining the terms under which they would accept each other. Crucially, none of these are about love but the right to dominate particular rooms, have their own way whenever they feel like it and to control both those invited into their homes and the conversations permitted. These are two resolutely single people insisting on a mode of living that suits them, a marriage of material comfort.

Geoffrey Streatfeild has some particularly notable experience with restoration comedy, starring in the National Theatre’s superb production of The Beaux’ Stratagem back in 2015. He has an ear for the pace and flow of the writing, able to deliver Congreve’s lines with a natural speed and meaning that bring out the full flavour of Mirabell’s character. Streatfeild’s performances are always worth seeing, and while he was by far the best thing in the recent production of Cellmates at the Hampstead Theatre, bringing a new subtly to the role of the stranded spy in Russia, here again he applies his considerable range to the complex role of the lothario in love.

His Mirabell makes for a credible lover, and in a play where no one else seems to mean any protestation of love, he brings sincerity and underlying emotion to each declaration. In the presence of his object, he seems overwhelmed, almost tongue-tied in admiration as she repeatedly outwits him, enjoying his suffering. Streatfeild conveys deep feeling so well, and despite the powerful intrigues he sets in motion, a genuine heart beats beneath the surface – potentially for a woman who does not deserve his devotion.

As Millamant Justine Mitchell presents a sharp and sarcastic woman who is well aware of her own worth, and willing to play her lovers off against one another for her own amusement. She implies a preference for Mirabelle which is entirely practical, based on the freedom to conduct much of her life as she chooses and to retain her status in town. It’s a refreshing presentation of a female lead in a period drama, and Mitchell makes Millamant’s powerful position clear, certain she will at least be in a marriage of equals. Whether she is in love with Mirabell is debatable, but she at least has the gumption to control or hide her feelings in order to secure the best deal for her future self.

Haydn Gwynne’s Lady Wishfort is a larger-than-life interpretation that suits her farcical scenes quite well. Splendidly, and somewhat gaudily, dressed by Anna Fleischle, Gwynne is clearly having a fantastic time as the fluttery aunt desperate to be seduced one last time, and her performance is at a comedic pitch of nervy anxiety and reawakened passion throughout. She has lots of hilarious moments, although the depth of her loathing for Mirabell (and others) will become deeper as the run progresses.

There is impressive support from Jenny Jules as the scorned Mrs Mawood who enjoys using her power to exact revenge, although Jules could revel in the lines a little more and make them really bite, while her rival Mrs Fainall is given a likeable and controlled exterior by Caroline Martin. Sarah Hadland is an excellent Foible, bringing great timing and delivery to the more farcical elements, and proving that even serving women make feisty wives, while Fisayo Akinade plays up the foppery as Witwoud. There is a general tendency to speed through the lines and occasionally quieter tones are lost in the loud rustle of silk dresses but, again, this should even out as the cast become more confident.

There’s plenty of potential here and the performances, which still feel a little isolated, should become a company effort as more time on the stage familiarises the flow, and repetition reinforces the play’s relationships. Anna Fleischle has designed a set that becomes increasingly feminised as the power shifts from the dark panelling of the all-male first Act where the intrigues are born, to the more elaborately decorated home of Lady Wishfort with carpets, paintings and a chaise longue to imply a richly furnished female space where ultimate power rests.

Macdonald’s production of The Way of the World still has a little more to do ahead of press night to discover its spring and, crucially to bring the audience more fully into the joy of the schemes Congreve sets up. After the interval, the audience in the circle had notably thinned – a result of the long run time in conjunction with the slightly flat first couple of Acts – but the remainder is worth staying for as the core plot and comedy ramp-up, ending with a well-choreographed formal dance. The Donmar’s new version of Congreve’s play has plenty of musings on marriage and the role of women which still feel extremely pertinent; it just needs to even out the tone to make this restoration comedy really fizz.

The Way of the World is at the Donmar Warehouse until 26 May. Tickets start at £10 with Klaxon tickets released every Monday at 12pm. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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