Tag Archives: Duke of York’s Theatre

King Lear – Duke of York’s Theatre

Ian McKellen in King Lear

Our collective theatre memory is full of remarkable performances, whenever a show is revived someone in the production or at least one of the critics will refer to a definitive performance they once saw from a great actor of the past, a benchmark for every subsequent version we see. This is particularly true for Shakespeare, so as we continue to revere Olivier, Gielgud and the rest, audiences may begin to think they will never see anything to match them. It’s all nonsense of course, the stand-out performances in any era are often only judged so in retrospect and modern theatre offers much that will be remembered. But once in a while you know you’re in the presence of greatness and Ian McKellen’s King Lear will be talked about for years to come.

Shakespeare’s plays are eternally relevant, whatever the external socio-political circumstances of the times, they fit, and thus King Lear comes around with considerable regularity. It’s a difficult play to pace correctly and can sometimes feel overly ponderous or meandering. By extension the star power of whoever play’s Lear can also drown out the surround cast, diluting the important political and dynastic machinations that drive the plot.

No such worries in this carefully controlled and cohesive transfer from the Chichester Festival Theatre, the latest of their programme to come into town, in which Director Jonathan Munby gives equal weighting to the three elements of the plot, tempering the extraordinary charisma of his leading man by generating interest in the play’s contingent storylines – the grasping power of Regan and Goneril, and the destruction of Gloucester’s family.

The corrupting nature of power and its association with ensuing madness are frequent themes across many of Shakespeare’s political and tragic plays. Macbeth violently seizes power and loses his sanity, Hamlet’s balance is disturbed by his Uncle’s equally aggressive dispatch of the rightful King, while Coriolanus’s delusional obsession with his own popularity leads to tyranny. This version of King Lear uses his faulty decision to share his kingdom as the very essence of his madness. The poor use of power is a symptom of what’s to come rather than his subsequent rejection, placing the monarch in a web of intrigue that seemed always waiting to ensnare him.

With so many shouty Lear’s in recent years, it’s refreshing to see an interpretation that’s considerably more varied, drawing out the sensitive and gentle aspects of lost identity to temper the fewer, and here more unexpected, moments of rage and cruelty. There is a real honesty and sensitivity in the way Lear’s madness is presented, and, as anyone who has lived with dementia sufferers will know, there is huge variety in mood and interaction across any single day. Moments of perfect lucidity are common, intermingled with calm loops of memory and confusion about timelines, while the flashes of bitter anger and frustration pass as rapidly and vigorously as they emerged.

You see all of this in McKellen’s performance, and as he gives away his lands there are couple of small contortions of the face in which Lear struggles to retain his train of thought, and overwhelming emotion tries to force its way up his throat like reflux. This Lear does rage but only rarely, when he is unable to process the responses of those around him or his own feelings. The bitter curses he heaps on Goneril are all the more shocking for seeming to come from nowhere, one minute a reasonable conversation, the next an invective on sterility, before fading once more to a quieter resignation. You see this change of weather pass across McKellen’s face, a clear and subtle impression of those shifting faculties in his mind that become increasingly pitiable, rather than the result of his hateful tyranny. This is a Lear who cannot control what is happening to him and the result is very moving.

This softer approach also makes sense of the notion of injustice that plagues the King throughout the play, and the obsessive way his mind returns again and again to the clawing ingratitude of his two eldest daughters, reiterating the idea of this as a trigger rather than the sole cause of his decline. The melancholic sorrow with which McKellen’s Lear references the cause of his undoing implies the personal loss of a father’s deluded love for his ungrateful children rather than the more bombastic approaches to the character that emphasis the loss of sovereignty. This Lear sees the Duchesses of Cornwall and Albany for what they really are, and it breaks him.

McKellen is so quiet as Lear, with so much of his performance and emotion expressed in small contained movements, a tiny and frail human unable to fight against the elements and fates stacked against him. This stripping of kingship to reveal the fallible man below is something Shakespeare explored many times – not least in Henry V’s pre-battle qualms – and McKellen draws on that to considerable effect to show the easy ruin of a man whose anointed greatness is no barrier to pain, destitution and lovelessness.

McKellen is so memorable in this role because he slowly introduces Lear’s metamorphosis, cracking the surface of the monarch so chinks of confused mind start to show through the performance until only fragments of the true Lear are left, disparate and near unreachable. When early on he lingers a beat too long on a comment about treating Cordelia badly, it is so small a remark you almost miss it, but it reveals everything about the slow tearing at his heart and conscience that McKellen uses to rake across the mind of his character, a constant sense of thoughts in flux and flutter.

Despite his considerable star power, McKellen’s collaborative approach keeps the play perfectly in balance, leaving room for the intricate parallel narratives that reflect his own trajectory and allowing other characters equal space to shine, not least Luke Thompson’s Edgar driven to feign madness away from Court when his reputation is maligned by his base-born half-brother. Thompson’s star has been steadily rising for some time with notable roles in numerous classical productions, including a fresh take on Laertes in Robert Icke’s 2017 Hamlet where his approach mirrored the fatal indecision of Andrew Scott’s protagonist.

The role of Edgar can sometimes be too overplayed, to exuberantly mad when he assumes the name of Tom. Instead, Thompson uses his experience of Hamlet to provide a counterpoint to Lear’s decline, but with more stage time than his previous roles, this part gives him scope to display a range of skills. First seen as a clean-cut hero in appropriate military dress, attending on the pomp and ceremony of Lear’s Court, the panicked Edgar hides himself in the believable feigned madness of Tom, adopting three distinct accents to delineate the various personalities he assumes, including a very passable Scottish brogue as Tom.

There is also a vigorous and well executed fight scene in the play’s final moments as Edgar tries to disarm his knife-wielding brother in hand-to-hand combat, while Thompson also brings to bear all the tenderness and emotional sensitivity that Edgar feels for the destroyed parallel figures of his own father, Gloucester, and his plagued former monarch. He credible assumes the role of saviour, a good honest man whose moral rectitude and kind heart wins the respect of the audience and his kingdom.

There is a semi-religious concept of morality that runs through Director Jonathan Munby’s production, and aside from Edgar the only core player left standing is Anthony Howell’s Albany (who previously worked with Thompson on The Globe’s Julius Caesar), a man betrayed by his wife but presented as upstanding enough to retain his life and presumably the country. Claire Price as Goneril and Kirsty Bushell as Regan deliberately make the sisters initially more reasonable and less caricatured than other productions often do. They both appear modest and stately in declaring their love for their father, but power corrupts them. Price is a despairing country gentlewoman exasperated by her cantankerous parent, while Bushell’s more glamorous Regan has a potent sexually charged relationship with her husband (Daniel Rabin) that seems to quite naturally tip into sadism.

Like Hamlet, King Lear is a double tragedy and both plays show an ordinary family destroyed by its proximity to the throne, innocent casualties of wider political games. The Gloucester subplot is often the most poignant, particularly when the Royal Family are portrayed as unlikable tyrants, and Danny Webb’s Gloucester carefully draws-out all the emotion and sympathy the role can offer. The famous eye gouging scene is brutal as ever, but the clifftop despair and regret for his mistakes are made quite tenderly. As his scheming bastard son, James Corrigan is suitably villainous and calculating, easily pulling the strings of those around him to serve his own advancement.

Munby’s production is still a lengthy affair at around three and a half hours, but all the elements of the story are so well knitted together that it takes on its own momentum, even with a lengthy two hour run to the only interval. But there is a consistent vision for the show which balances and reflects the pitch of the performances, presenting a semi-military Royal state, not dissimilar from our own, that revels in its Court rituals as well its country pursuits. Designer Paul Wills surrounds the stage with a semi-circle of Jacobean panelling, and, in Goneril’s house, presents a dinner party full of men in country tweeds, a macho shooting party that looks, and behaves, like The Riot Club.

The first part of the show is performed on a blood red circle of carpet that becomes soaked in rain water which the actors must slosh around on, as though wading in their own wickedness. Events reach their crisis in an abattoir complete with carcasses and severed animal heads where Gloucester loses his eyes before the interval, but later as redemption and moral correction dominate the story, the circle is made white and the panelling peels back to reveal white walls. The carefully considered symbolism of the staging is subtle but reveals the slow unravelling of privilege, a monarchy wiped out and evil purged from the land.

Unusually, there is still more than a week of preview performances before Press Night, but this Chichester transfer has hit its stride early. After the scramble for tickets earlier this year, hour-long queues, having seats selected for you based on pay bands and crashing websites, just getting to the checkout may have seemed like a miracle, but it was worth it.  King Lear has long been a test for actors of a certain age, but the focus on the star playing the declining monarch can under-power the rest of the story. It’s a relief to see a production that tightens its core, with Munby giving equal weight to each strand so as to build proper momentum. A memorable interpretation with a theatre superstar giving one of his finest and most generous performances.

 King Lear is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 3 November and tickets start at £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Ink and the Case of the West End Transfer

Ink at the Duke of York's Theatre

For most theatres, a West End transfer is the Golden Ticket, the chance to take their work to that tiny patch of illustrious venues from Shaftesbury Avenue to Covent Garden. Sometimes these are a roaring success; the new transfer of Ink, such a joy at The Almeida, is every bit as perfect at its new home in the Duke of York’s, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet retained its lovely intimacy in the bigger Harold Pinter space and anyone who saw the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge in any venue couldn’t help but be astounded by its impact. But a transfer is also a gamble, and every year numerous plays fail because the decision to open the performance to new audiences is predominantly a commercial one, with artistic drivers taking second place.

There are three main types of West End transfer; the ones that move within London from the high-performing venues that attract the mainstream critics, best described as “off-West-End”; there are regional transfers from the powerhouses of the Theatre Royal Bath, the Bristol Old Vic, the Chichester Festival Theatre, the RSC in Stratford and the like; and there are the shows that come from Broadway. The latter two categories seem to suffer more often in the glare of the West End, partly, as Lynne Gardner recently pointed out because a 5 star show from Edinburgh feels very different when you put it in London, and partly because transfers are too often a poor fit for their new space. Crucially then, context is all.

Ink and Hamlet may have successfully sidestepped these problems, and arguably off-West End transfers fare better because they’re in front of exactly the same set of critics as their original run, but not all of them succeed. This year the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Love in Idleness proved a sell-out at its tiny London Bridge home and critical applause meant a transfer was inevitable. Yet, when it finally landed at The Apollo, it’s evident original charm felt a little lost on the bigger stage, playing to a less than full house on a Friday night. Likewise, plaudits rained in for the RSC’s production of Queen Anne in Stratford but although the story was interesting enough and well performed, in the less-than-full auditorium of the capacious Theatre Royal Haymarket (TRH) on another Friday night, it felt meandering and stilted.

Last year’s Alan Ayckbourn revival of How the Other Half Loves also fell foul of the TRH effect, drowning its comedy in acres of space. Perhaps the critics don’t notice from the visual comfort of the Stalls, but siting in the Upper Circle or Balcony the action felt more remote than it should. Yet, it’s not always this way and plenty of shows manage to play as effectively to the top of the house as to the bottom, so what is happening? The answer is that too often shows are transferring kit and caboodle, without taking the time to think about how they fit into their new space. Transfers can happen months after the original run, by which time the Director and Designer are on to other projects, but without more considered input into how the show will play in the new space, you end up with reams of discounted seats. It’s no surprise to hear that you could barely get into Hamlet at the Harold Pinter but the TRH were practically paying you to see Queen Anne in its final weeks.

Shows fail to dazzle in the West End for other reasons of course and perfectly decent productions of well-known plays with star names can represent some of the very best work in their region. But with just so much choice, so many approaches to performance and younger theatres pushing boundaries, some of these transfers can seem a little too safe, traditional and even old-fashioned. When London theatre-goers are offered the choice of seeing the umpteenth version of Hay Fever or The Importance of Being Ernest with a star of yesteryear, or Ivo van Hove, Jamie Lloyd or Robert Icke deconstructing an equally classic play and blasting new life through it, its innovation that usually wins. The same applies to Broadway transfers, like this year’s The Mentor for example, which in many ways play much safer than London shows and don’t always achieve the same level of critical appreciation they had in the States.

The point of all of this is to show that a West End transfer is not an end in itself, and the shows that do well have to earn their audience in exactly the same way as any new play opening in WC2. There are soaring successes that can equally come the few miles across town, from across the country or across the pond, but they work so well because they pay attention to their new context, to a different size stage, to a theatre with multiple seating levels and to the audiences hungry for interesting stories told in exciting ways.

Recently, the American Repertory Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie made a spectacular impact at The Duke of York’s, Ian McEwan and Patrick Stewart’s toured in No Man’s Land before finally arriving for a triumphant run at the Wyndhams late last year, while Oslo is doing great business at The National Theatre and is sure to triumph at the Harold Pinter as well. Within London, shows of incredibly quality have also earned their place in the West End; who hasn’t been impressed by The Ferryman which came from The Royal Court, and re-watching Hamlet at the Harold Pinter last month, the production had matured beautifully from its original Almeida run, retaining its intimacy, as if Andrew Scott was holding you hand and whispering his soliloquies into your ear, a private excoriation of soul between you and him.

This is the context then for the transfer of James Graham’s fantastic new play Ink which received its Golden Ticket to the West End after a sold-out and highly acclaimed run at The Almeida from June. Seeing it back then, it was instantly clear that Graham’s work was a masterpiece, a perfectly constructed piece of theatre that months on is still worth gushing about. Happily, every word of this original review still stands and it’s transfer not only provided another opportunity to see it, but, with enormous competition, proved that so far it is undoubtedly this year’s best new play. That banner has already been handed to The Ferryman, which in a big year for new work set a high bar, but although excellent and expertly directed, didn’t quite hit the emotional pitch or degree of darkness that the early scenes implied would come. Even with promising shows like The Network and Graham’s own rival new play Labour of Love still to come, Ink is an extraordinary piece of writing that has easily made the leap into West End history.

With almost the entire original cast still onboard, the show’s elaborately staggered design by Bunny Christie looks like a seedy den of journalistic compromise with desks and cabinets piled high, and feels like it was built especially for the Duke of York’s, so snugly does it fit the stage. It’s video screen backdrop plays host to Sun headlines from its first year of operation, as well as indicating scenes set at other newspapers, and offers a trail of dripping ink as the mood darkens, which seems more noticeable than it had been at The Almeida, adding much to the changing tone.

A second viewing means the story is familiar so there’s plenty of time to enjoy all the subtleties of director Rupert Goold’s production and the extensive research that shines through the writing. The opening scene, two men spotlight from the back, feels more like a deal with the devil than it did before, while Goold brings out the growing sense of camaraderie that Sun Editor Larry Lamb builds from scratch among his team of Working Class outsiders, showing how that team ethos was a driving force behind the success of The Sun in the early months. But crucially, although they stand together in the good times, in the second half when things take a darker turn rifts develop among them, based on taste, and slowly the play devolves into a series of smaller and smaller conversations until Lamb is alone onstage once again, isolated by his own choices.

Richard Coyle’s Larry Lamb is every bit as repellently fascinating, sympathetic and hateful as it was earlier in the summer. In Coyle’s performance Lamb is the embodiment of The Sun, a traditional fleet street man turned on his head by the populist cavalcade he unleashes. Initially reluctant, Lamb becomes the leader he needs to be to make his mark on the clubbable world of Fleet Street, and Coyle shows him unleashing a monster as he seeks the next sensationalist headline that will ensure he meets his target of outselling his rivals.

Bertie Carvel’s Rupert Murdoch is equally fascinating, a slightly twisted sliver of darkness that sets in motion the biggest sea change that journalism had ever seen, but manages to keep culpability at arm’s length. It’s a very physical performance, with a slight stoop and way of holding his head to the side as he rails against the Establishment that won’t ever accept him. One of the most intriguing aspects of Graham’s characterisation is seeing this aspect of Murdoch, the innovator who brings business-thinking to the newspaper industry, modernising its approach but all the while knowing the audience will understand the consequences so many decades on.

With many of the cast members reprising their original roles, there is an excellent support for the leads which ensure this remains a fantastic ensemble piece with not a character wasted, each one adding layers to the drama and background to the newspaper business that made The Sun’s approach so radical. There are great supporting performances from Sophie Stanton as formidable Women’s Editor Joyce Hopkirk who holds her own in a world of men, Justin Salinger as Brian McConnell the crime writer turned right-hand-man to Lamb, one of the lads who fears the paper’s direction, and Tim Steed as the buttoned-up Bernard Shrimsley whose love of fonts adds much hilarity.

Ink has made the most of its Golden Ticket to the West End and remains one of this year’s most unmissable shows. Happily situated at the Duke of York’s, the staging fits the space entirely and the multi-level aspect of the set plays to all the theatre’s seating levels. Beautifully constructed and superbly performed, Graham’s play is a fascinating insight into one of Britain’s most important industries and the period that set it on a new track. Getting a West End transfer right may be a huge gamble, but by prioritising the artistic transition toits new home, Ink shows how it should be done. And that’s one bit of news that isn’t fake.

Ink is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 6 January. Tickets start at £15 for day seats. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1       


The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s Theatre

glass-menagerie

Absence and disappointment fill Tennessee Williams’s first big successful play The Glass Menagerie, but its appeal rests in the charm of its small family, one room set-up that continues to feel relevant and troubling today. Yet it’s been quite some time since a production has reached the West End despite a well-received version at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2015; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof come round fairly often, and we even had a rather flat production of In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel last year at the Charing Cross Theatre, but the complexities of Williams’s 1944 play with its hyper-realised memory-format make it difficult to do well.

The 2013 American Repertory Theatre production of this play has finally made it to London, where it has already received stellar reviews to add to its Tony nominations from Broadway. And all of them are entirely deserved in a production that showcases the complexities of family relationships and pointedly reveals the inner-life of its characters. The one thing you’ll hear over and over again about this play is that it is Williams’s most autobiographical work but how much he has drawn from his own life and experiences in the several years it took to compose this play are debatable, but that is not all there is to say about this remarkable drama.

Set in the Wingfield’s small St Louis flat in an unremarkable tenant block, the narrator Tom lives with his mother and sister in genteel poverty. Tom works at the local shoe warehouse and dreams of freedom from the burden of providing for his family, a burden which takes him to ‘the movies’ every night to escape into the adventure of the silver screen. Matriarch Amanda has cared for her, now adult, children since her husband abandoned them many years before and dreams of receiving a “gentlemen caller” to marry her painfully shy and slightly disabled daughter Laura. Obsessed with her own past glories as a younger woman, Amanda nags and harries Tom until he finally agrees to bring home a friend from work, a night that changes everything.

Where Williams excels as a dramatist is his ability to show an audience what’s going on under the skin of his characters even when their surface demeanour is calm, poised and seemingly repressed. Particularly drawn to people who aspire to a type of gentility they lack or have since lost, Williams characters often burn with an interior passion for something or someone that can never be realised, or if it is will be a fleeting pleasure rather than the much needed change of life. We see this in Blanche who yearns for the respectability of marriage and stability but cannot fight her baser attractions to virile younger men, and we see it in Maggie who tries to be a dutiful daughter-in-law and wife but cannot contain her unrequited passion for her husband and his protection from the machinations of his family.

In The Glass Menagerie, and so beautifully realised in this production, the three primary characters struggle in exactly the same way, having to present one face to the world, to show acceptance and duty, while inside their fantasies of escape and freedom fight to emerge. The dramatic frame is set by Tom who speaks directly to the audience at the beginning from some future time, long after the events the play recounts. These are his memories and ones we are asked not to trust, as they are filled with illusion and his years of regret. Tom (which happens to be Williams’s real name) is then partly an unreliable narrator but also someone we come to view quite differently as events play out.

Initially he seems a steady, reliable young man, worn down by the drudgery of his work who seeks solace for his sensitive soul in writing poetry and going to the cinema. But actor Michael Esper slowly reveals the complexities under the surface, a sense of frustration with his overbearing mother and her constant interference, a rage against the world for forcing him into a life he didn’t want and, somewhat surprisingly, a secret drive to abandon them entirely. It is in the second act that an unexpected darkness emerges in Tom as he fights for his own survival, and in Esper’s performance you get clever hints that Tom is not all he seems, that ‘the movies’ may not be what we think and his interest in Jim the “gentleman caller” is something less wholesome than his family believes.

Similarly sister Laura, played by Kate O’Flynn is a delicate, broken creature, drummed into shyness and a sense of inferiority by the demands of her mother. Obsessed with caring for her collection of glass ornaments, represented here as only one small glass unicorn, Laura we learn has lived a life unfulfilled by work or love, clinging only to the constancy of her fragile collection. And while away from her mother we see her care for her brother’s welfare, it is with the arrival of Jim that O’Flynn allows Laura’s true character to burst into life, as she warms to the gentleness of his treatment, becoming talkative and momentarily happy in his presence. We see that despite her reticence she yearns for the kind of love her mother dreams of for her, something she has always convinced herself was not possible for someone like her. And the audience truly feels for her as the play reaches its conclusion.

In many ways, Amanda is the most complicated role of them all and Cherry Jones’s Tony-nominated performance is a masterclass in Williams’s pushy Southern women. Disguised as a protective instinct, to save her children from vice, Amanda is concerned that the world should see her as a decent, dignified woman. Like her children she has no current friends to speak of, but she revels in memories of her past that seem as real to her in Jones’s performance, as the present day. We never know really what happened with her husband and there are some hints that he was unsuitable, but she focuses on the many offers and admirers she once had, and the dreamlike reality of that earlier happier time. Amanda nags and berates her children, interferes in their business and talks excessively at people, so the audience understands Tom’s need to escape entirely. Yet, Jones still makes her sympathetic, affected by the absence of her husband and the disappointment of a life that promised so much and delivered so little.

Although a relatively small role Jim played by Brian J. Smith, the infamous “gentleman caller” is a sensitive young man who arrives at the Wingfield’s with no expectation of why he’s really there. Williams also gives him a similar sense of internal and external battle as he is drawn to Laura’s sadness and tries to gently nurture her confidence. Smith dominates the few scenes he’s in, as a breath of fresh air that blows through the Wingfield house bringing momentary hope and happiness to everyone inside, which serves to makes the conclusion only feel more emotive.

John Tiffany directs with a deep understanding of the layers in Williams’s play, while cleverly mixing a sense of encroaching reality with the ephemeral nature of memory. Natasha Katz’s lighting design adds to the dreamlike quality of the production and the slightly haunting nature of Tom’s few narrative moments. Bob Crowley’s layers of hexagonal set pitch the three sections slightly out of line with each other, which beautifully reflects how little the three protagonists understand each other, while the whole is cut into by a lightning bolt-shaped fire escape that pierces the Wingfield’s flat and underlines Tom’s concluding speech.

The flat is surrounded by a vast black lagoon which is occasionally lit like stars in moments of hope but seeks to demonstrate the endless emptiness that surrounds all of them, like an island forever cut-off from the outside world. While it works brilliantly as metaphor, it does lose the sense of crowding and claustrophobia that tenement-living induces and is also vital to the play’s subtext. There is little sense of being surrounded by other lives here which is a shame, and the National’s recent take on The Deep Blue Sea had a more suitable solution to the block housing problem.

Nonetheless, this is a masterfully charged production of Williams’s early play, and while the style takes a little while to get used to, it soon draws you into the inner-lives of its lonely protagonists. And while in one sense it is a tiny domestic drama that affects only the four characters we see, it has a universality that is quite affecting. Everyone has lost or never achieved something they wanted, whether it is love, recognition or freedom, and Williams’s creations represent something we can all recognise. The power of this play’s characters, and the American Repertory Theatre’s excellent production, is that all of them are fragile creatures, a glass menagerie that we watch shatter in the hands of the playwright.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 29 April. Tickets start at £20 but do note ATG booking fees. Day seats are available from £15 at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Dresser – Duke of York’s Theatre

The Dresser - Duke of York's Theatre

Everyone loves a bit of backstage drama and the West End has frequently welcomed successful runs of a number of ‘behind-the-scenes’ comedies – in the last few years alone there have been versions of Noises Off, The Play That Goes Wrong franchise and Harlequinade. But while these shows mock the silliness of actors and play-up the slapstick humour of putting on a play, there is also a darker more tragic side to an endless life on the road, to actors forcing themselves to play the same role night after night, and the difficulties of company hierarchy, which Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play The Dresser illuminates. In order to give an exemplary and memorable onstage performance do the very best actors need to suffer off-stage? And if they do, are there enough people to make sure they go on in time?

Currently playing at The Duke of York’s Theatre after a brief national tour, Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott take on the leading roles in Harwood’s much-loved tale. It’s an hour before a performance of King Lear and veteran actor “Sir” is missing while his dresser Norman paces anxiously around the tiny dressing room, covering for his famous master. After a beleaguered tour, the icy stage manager decides to cancel the show, but just in time Sir arrives, drunk and emotional. With 30 minutes till curtain up Norman not only has to get his star dressed but deal with his histrionics while reminding him what play he’s doing. Will Sir make it to the stage and even if he does can he get through the performance without giving himself away.

Harwood’s play is largely a two-hander and so much then rests on the chemistry between the leads. A recent acclaimed televised version united Ian McKellen (as Norman) with Anthony Hopkins (as Sir), and while reading any critical reviews of this latest version and you’ll see mention of the 1983 film with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney which many believed definitive. But nothing in theatre is ever really definitive, and this new version, directed by Sean Foley brings its own interpretation and flavour to the play, while evoking the freedom and defiance of the wartime generation.

In particular the dual relationship with celebrity is one that continues to fascinate us, embodied in The Dresser by the character of Norman who both loves the proximity to greatness that his job affords him, a role of which he is fiercely protective, while simultaneously loathing aspects of the man he has devoted his life to. What is interesting about Shearsmith’s performance is how effectively we see beneath Norman’s obsequious surface to the deeply ingrained bitterness below, yet he continues to value and covet the private access he has to Sir. There is considerable complexity here as Shearsmith presents a man who in a sense has sacrificed his own life and individualism to devoted service, but remains fully cognizant of his master’s flaws and resentful not just of others trying to come between them, but of the lack of gratitude from his employer.

One the most fascinating aspects of this play is seeing these undercurrents slowly emerge, and while the role of Norman is less outwardly showy than Sir, it is, in some ways, trickier to elucidate this bundle of repression, bile and, at times, personal despair. But Norman is far more than a pseudo-butler and Shearsmith plays-up his intelligence and shrewdness in keeping the angry theatre company at bay while he gets Sir stage-ready, as well as having an equally detailed knowledge of Shakespeare plays which comes in handy when frequently correcting his star’s mistakes. Although we clearly see that Norman is superior to his master, we also have to believe that he has invested enough in the relationship to have stayed for decades, and Shearsmith navigates that line very successfully.

By contrast, the role of Sir requires considerably more ebullience, and a kind of entitled indulgence for his behaviour. In Ken Stott’s performance, the audience sees a man who is entirely self-involved and, while incapacitated by drink and its consequences for much of the early part of the play, has little regard for those relying on him to pull it together and put on a show. His emotions seem to teeter on the brink of anger and complete collapse which Stott makes both fascinating and almost sympathetic. In Stott’s take on the character we see Sir continually battling his physical incapacity – brought about by age, drink and exhaustion –becoming a metaphorical tug-of-war between his mind and his body.

Here too we see that the effect of one day of over-imbibing reflects a lifetime of issues that culminate in this mini-breakdown, showing us the tougher side of an artistic life – endless nights on the road, random rooms and a series of failed relationships, alongside the pressure and expectation for a more successful actor that they will deliver a mind-blowing performance every night for the expectant paying audience. Stott’s Sir is certainly petulant and frustrating to manage, arrogant and domineering, but he’s also a man crippled by self-doubt about the rather transactional relationship others have with his artistic credibility.

And this challenge between artistic authenticity and making-do for commercial survival is at the heart of director Sean Foley’s revival, and as we see aspects of their King Lear from backstage, we see how frantically this company try to keep the show on the road with makeshift approaches that mirror their wartime era. These sections have much in common with Noises Off and Harlequinade as they descend into semi-farce, temporarily lifting the more serious tone of the dressing-room scenes, as anxiety over whether the shambling Sir will make it onto the stage after missing several cues and who will operate the thunder machine, becomes acute.

The wider cast is less well drawn by Harwood, giving us a surface engagement with a number of stereotypes including a fading actress, stoney-faced stage manager, novice actress and younger serious thesp, all of whom pop in and out of the action. Her Ladyship (a private joke with Sir) is given added meaning by Harriet Thorpe, emphasising the difficulty of being a lead actress beyond a certain age, who hasn’t achieved anything like the acclaim of her leading man. It’s clear she genuinely cares for him and the character is key to revealing the political factions backstage. There is a tender moment with Selina Cadell’s stage manager whose icy disapproval begins to make sense, but otherwise the creation of the secondary plots is as slapdash as their production of Lear.

The revolving set is used to marvellous effect in both the more intimate shabby dressing room and the expansive backstage scenes, moving seamlessly between them, and reiterating the collision of private and public life that this play considers. Meanwhile the sound design links the experience of a World War Two bombardment with the emotional collapse of this jaded company enduring one more attack from its volatile star player. With our ongoing fascinating with celebrity and their lives off-camera, The Dresser still feels pertinent to our times, especially with Shearsmith and Stott bringing new meaning to its fractious central relationship.

The Dresser is at The Duke of York’s Theatre until 14 January. Tickets start at £10 (although most are from £25) and are also available on Last Minute from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Faustus – Duke of York’s Theatre

Faustus

April and May are big months for Games of Thrones fans, not only does the sixth season premiere next Sunday but two of its biggest young stars are taking to the London stage in back-to-back theatres. Next month Richard Madden (who played Robb Stark) opens as the lead in Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet alongside his Cinderella co-star Downton’s Lily James. First, however is Kit Harington in Jamie Lloyd’s much anticipated and lurid Faustus which starts press previews later this week with official reviews expected in the early hours of 26 April. Yet on leaving the theatre this weekend we were handed postcards actively asking for feedback which prompted this preview piece.

When an actor is widely associated with one particular role, it can be very difficult for audiences to see them as anyone else, and – especially when they’re young – for critics to forget they did anything before. Jon Snow may have made Harington an international star, but his theatre experience includes highly credible roles in War Horse and Posh. Some actors are content to spend their careers playing much the same part – a variant on their own personality – and in Hollywood it’s virtually obligatory where the film is sold on the star name rather than character. The more chameleonic actor, who disappears entirely into their role every time, is considerably more interesting to me, and in the UK it’s often down to shrewd choices. So an actor who gets their big break on TV, like Tennant or Cumberbatch, can still do varied and brilliant work that takes their new fans with them.  And it seems that Harington may do the same – whether Jon Snow lives or dies we will soon know, but with an emotional role in Testament of Youth under his belt and now this grimy take on Faustus, his diversity will stand him in good stead.

You can always rely on Jamie Lloyd for innovation and while this modern day retelling may have some purists (and probably critics) huffing into their programme, it manages to mix the drama and potency of Marlowe’s original language with modern themes about the pursuit of celebrity that make for a discomforting yet compelling evening. Most radical is the decision to utilise Marlowe’s text for most of the first half and at the end of the second, while in between adding additional scenes by Colin Teevan to form a theatrical cut-and-shut. Unlike its vehicular equivalent however this really works and gives Faustus’s ‘glory years’ a surreal or dream-like quality that for him seem to flash past in an instant.

Utilising the necromancy skills he employs to conjure Lucifer and his hoard, Faustus becomes not just any celebrity but, after watching David Copperfield on TV, a star magician, wowing the world with his power to control all things and we get to see a few magic tricks and theatrical slight-of-hand as part of the fun – it’s all done with a graphic-novel-like silliness that only serves to make everything else more unpalatable. This is an inspired plot point that neatly marries Marlowe’s original tale with the company’s insinuation of a similarly soulless modern desire for fame at any price. It uses a reality-celebrity feel to give a new twist to traditional allusions, including at one point a naked Adam and Eve that seems to question both heaven and hell as aspirational concepts. In fact of the seven deadly sins (brilliantly enacted by Tom Edden) it is lust that frequently rears its head in this production as scantily clad characters occasionally grope and pleasure each other. But it’s always shabby and sordid showing how easily corrupted Faustus was for grubby earthly desires.

Lloyd achieves a dark contemporary feel extremely well and is made manifest in the (ever-brilliant) Soutra Gilmour set. As the audience take their seat Faustus sits staring brainlessly at the TV in a seedy-looking flat as modern devil-based pop classics blare out; everything is soiled and worn with age, a depressing motel-like set-up, making Faustus’s choice to sell his soul his only chance of escape from this disgusting drone-like existence, rather than just vanity. The sordidness of this deal is ever-present and as the set pulls apart to reveal a series of nasty theatre Green Rooms and hotels, that are a far cry from the glamour he craves, there may be colour, adulation and success but it all has a depressing tinge, a constant reminder of the price he’s yet to pay.

Harington is a conflicted Faustus and while he constantly doubts his decision, it is never suggested he is a good man led astray. On the contrary Harington’s Faustus has a dark heart which always overrides his conscience, driven by his want of public recognition and frequent lusts. It is only when he achieves it that he finds he’s made an empty bargain and seeks something pure and real with his assistant played by Jade Anouka (one of two roles perfectly recast as women). This performance is so interesting because it’s not a straight projection from nothing to everything; instead Harington makes him waver and at times even to skirt regret only to resurge into arrogance, feeling it all worthwhile. As the years pass too quickly those lows become more pronounced as his fame tails off with nothing to show for it and Harington is at his best in these later scenes as desperation gives way to resignation as he performs some dark and unforgiveable acts. As Lucifer finally appears to collect his due back in the old apartment, you’re left wondering if any of it was real. It is an absorbing and nuanced performance that will only grow more emotional as the run continues.

The role of Mephistopheles, Lucifer’s companion who is ‘lent’ to Faustus for his 24 year reign is being played by Jenna Russell who almost steals the show with a performance of comedic envy that is a joy to watch and constantly unsettling. Faustus primarily engages with two characters during his fame – Wagner and Mephistopheles – and by making them both women adds a much needed gender balance as well as emphasising the battle between them for his attention. Russell is a brutal guardian, pushing Faustus towards his dreams but serving as a constant reminder of Lucifer’s power, never allowing Faustus to enjoy himself too much in case he tries to break the pact. We’re even treated to a mini-concert including Better the Devil Your Know and Devil Woman after the interval which is a rousing opener to Act Two.

Forbes Mason is a brilliantly squalid Lucifer, who commands a pack of devils that silently surround Faustus at all times dressed in soiled underwear and t-shirts. They seem to spring from the dingy flat he lives in, reflecting as the set does that distasteful bargain with even Faustus himself wearing a dirty tracksuit for much of the show until even he succumbs to underwear as his destiny comes ever closer – one of the real successes of this production is how fully realised this grubbiness is and how it continues to haunt Faustus.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction is vibrant, and as previously seen with The Ruling Class and The Homecoming, teeters always on the edge of sinister and bizarre. The vision he creates on stage here is brash and unnerving, seamlessly integrating centuries old speeches and imagery with modern pop culture influences that make for a fascinating and thought-provoking night at the theatre. Lloyd’s theatre company has a mission to engage with first-time theatre goers and if the rows of teenage girls are anything to go by, Faustus has succeeded in attracting them. It may be the young star that has got them through the door but his performance and the Lloyd-Gilmour vision will show them that London theatre is as exciting as it’s ever been. And with Branagh promising a contemporary two-hour Romeo and Juliet in the theatre behind this one, it’s not just Game of Thrones fans who have lots to look forward to this April and May.

Faustus is at the Duke of Yorks Theatre until 25 June with tickets from £15. This season is part of the £15 Mondays scheme allowing you to purchase reduced price tickets for any Monday in that month available on on 3 May and 1 June.

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