Tag Archives: Imogen Poots

Belleville – Donmar Warehouse

Belleville - Donmar Warehouse

In a year of great new writing, the less perfectly constructed plays somehow seem more obvious. From the Norwegian-managed peace talks between Israel and Palestine, to rural Ireland in the early 1980s, to the birth of a powerful tabloid on Fleet Street in 1969, this year’s best new work may have been geographically and topically diverse, but they have been carefully constructed with strong characterisation and skewering political messages. But, because this is an exceptional year, imperfections seem more glaring, plays that haven’t quite found their rhythm are more obvious, and Amy Herzog’s new play Belleville, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse, relies on excellent central performances to cover its dramatic weaknesses.

Set in contemporary Paris, a seemingly perfect young American couple rent a flat from their Senegalese neighbours. But Abby is an actress and yoga teacher who lives in a permanent state of high nervous excitement that makes her stay in Paris far more of a trial than she is prepared to concede. Abby idolises husband Zack who works as a doctor for an international aid organisation and speaks eloquent French, but coming home early one-day Abby finds Zack not working. The perfect exterior begins to crack, and some surprising truths emerge; why are they really in Paris, how well does Zack really know the neighbours, and why can’t they leave for Christmas?

Herzog does well to create a set of characters and a scenario that, initially at least, the audience can invest in. The first two scenes are a portrait of Abby and Zack’s marriage which are both engagingly written and subtly revealing; there is an interesting flow to the interaction between the characters that feels like natural conversation and gives a sense of the companionship and frustration of living with a long-term partner. In minutes, their conversation moves smoothly from general catch-up on their day, to affectionate intimacies, to fairly amiable bickering and back again, in what feels like a detailed anatomy of marriage.

And, at the same time, the audience is given a glimpse of the difficulties of their partnership when Zack speaks openly to landlord Alioune early in the play about the intensity of Abby’s moods and how waring it is to be with someone refusing to take their anti-depressants. Herzog is constantly asking us not to take the characters at face value but to see them through the eyes of their partner, so we see Zack’s strength and Abby’s weakness based on conversations when the other isn’t around, and it is only later in the story that the audience is forced to re-evaluate those judgements.

There are also some intriguing themes and questions which are solidly established in Herzog’s writing, and, alongside the dissection of marriage, there is early implication that Belleville will also take-in father-daughter relationships, the long-term impact of grief, how well we really know the people we’re closest too, the strain of living far from home and, to some extent, the failure of the American dream. It’s a huge amount to pack into a 100-minute show, and the play’s inability to deliver on its early promise, satisfactorily managing the issues and character insights it raises, means too many aspects of the story are left unresolved.

Instead, as the plot unfolds across the next few scenes, Belleville feels rather half-hearted and unable to successfully marry the plot and the themes together, almost as though the ideas have become too big for the story and, having thrown everything into those early scenes, finding a way to bring all the strands back together has been rather elusive. In particular, aspects of the characterisation should have been seeded much earlier to make the sudden and almost melodramatic switch at the end seem more likely. Similarly, Abby’s reliance on calls to her father and the reasons the couple left the USA have considerable dramatic potential, going to the root of her relationship with Zack, and should be better used to tease out the idea that their relationship has been one long deception.

Herzog is trying to show a snapshot moment in their lives, one that turns-out to be crucial, but for the ending to feel meaningful and credible, these earlier questions about who they are and why they are in this situation also need to be more fully answered. It’s not enough for a character to have an eleventh-hour about-turn, this must be carefully woven into the play from the start and make psychological sense. There are some great moments of tension, but too much time is wasted on empty stages and superfluous detail that doesn’t make this short show as slick and tense as it really should be – particularly a wasteful final scene which is just 5 minutes of stage-tidying that has virtually no relevance to the plot, before fading out.

In Belleville, these hints are too small to make the outcome believable and, in their final scene both Zack and Abby suddenly act in ways that are unlikely based on their earlier behaviour. For that to work, these aspects of their character, or at least the conditions that create that possibility have to be built-in, otherwise it just feels like a hasty and appended conclusion.  Like Against at the The Almeida in August, Belleville would benefit from another 6 months of preparation to address the play’s inconsistencies, and perhaps moving it to the end of the Donmar’s Winter / Spring season would have allowed more time to decide the nature of the piece – is it a domestic drama or a something darker – and utilise the detail of those first two scenes to better effect.

With press night this week, however, what makes this a worthwhile are the two central performances from James Norton and Imogen Poots who bring credibility to their characters and help to disguise some of the weakness of the material. Actors, of course, do far more than read the words their given, with this show being a case in point, and in large part, the audience investment created at the start of the show, comes from their ability to breathe life into Abby and Zack, encouraging your interest in what happens to them.

Poots in particular is excellent as the neurotic and talkative Abby, and from the first moment she appears chatting veraciously to Alioune, thoughts skipping from one to the next, you get a clear picture of a warm and friendly young woman, eager to please but unable to control her impulses. There are undercurrents of obsession and paranoia that Poots picks out quite carefully, subtle at first but amplified as the story unfolds. And while Abby’s actions are less credulous in the second half of the play, Poots has created a real and conflicted person.

Early on, we learn Abby is almost constantly connected to her father, receiving calls from him several times a day, and Poots shows a woman willingly, but not happily, distanced from her family, concerned for them and homesick, but wanting to support her brilliant husband. Slowly she introduces the idea that life is not as perfect as she wants to believe, struggling with the language and intimidated to go out alone – the flat is largely her entire experience of living in France, and it’s a shame the writing squanders the opportunity to explore these ideas in more depth. Building on her acclaimed work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf earlier in the year, Poots manages to make Abby sympathetic, with an inner reserve, while making it clear that being around her would be exhausting.

Zack by contrast has an easy confidence and sense of being the “grown-up” in the relationship. Norton exactly grasps Zack’s slightly controlling nature and, while the surface may be calm and charming, their lifestyle is driven by his needs. The unsavoury aspects of Zack’s character are frequently pitted against his perfect image as the child-saving doctor, but Norton is able to veer between the two while revealing a man equally unhappy and insecure in the life they have built.

From the start as Abby catches him watching porn, Norton’s Zack struggles to maintain the fiction he presents to his wife, and the various ways in which he deflects her attention from the truth are rapidly discovered by the audience. The frequent drug-taking mirrors Abby’s dependence on her father’s calls, and in these moments Norton reveals Zack’s anxiety, becoming increasingly boxed-in by his own desperation. More of this needs to be supported by the script however, and too often the reasons for Zack’s responses are glossed over or not fully explained, and while Norton does the best he can with the general placidity of the character, he has considerably less depth to work with than Poots. He needs to be either more hapless or more deliberately sinister, and without the proper backstory it’s difficult to understand why he ends as he does.

The role of the neighbours, played by Malachi Kirby as Alioune and Faith Alaby as wife Amina, is potentially interesting but underpowered. While there is clearly a more ominous connection between Alioune and Zack, it never becomes clear what that is. And although well performed by both – Alaby entirely in French – they could be better used as a counterpoint to the ‘perfection’ of the central couple, and arguably, with a young family, two properties, a business, and also living away from their cultural origins, are the more successful pairing, a point that could be better emphasised.

Belleville does have a lot of potential, but it hasn’t yet been fully developed. Tom Scutt’s set evokes European-style apartment living, but the Parisian location could more completely draw out the discomfort of strangers in a strange land – frankly they could be anywhere. Michael Longhurst’s direction is swift if not always as deft as it could be, and despite some strong moments between the two leads, tension tends to dissipate rather than build in the interim. With a bit of revision, Belleville could be either a tight one-hour thriller or a more expansive anatomy of a destructive relationship, but until it can answer the questions it asks at the beginning, it cannot compete with the quality of this year’s best new plays.

Belleville is at the Donmar Warehouse until 3 February. Tickets are largely sold-out but at 12pm each Monday the Donmar releases £10 Klaxon tickets for the week ahead. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Harold Pinter Theatre

The room is set and the bar is fully stocked so brace yourself for one of the most vicious battles ever staged – we’re all going to George and Martha’s, and it’s going to be a very bumpy night! Edward Albee’s 1962 play, revived at the Harold Pinter Theatre, has lost none of its capacity to shock as two couples trade unendurably bitter barbs at an academic after-party. Its a scathing presentation of long marriage, staled and sharpened by years of frustrated ambition, disappointment and a genuine desire to cause pain makes for uncomfortable but electrifying viewing in James Macdonald’s new version.

One night after a welcome event for new Faculty members, Nick and Honey are asked to the home of George, Associate Professor in the History Department, and his wife Martha who happens to be the university President’s daughter. Already partially sozzled and well-past midnight, these semi-strangers engage in reserved conversation, but as the drinks flow all too freely, the façade is shattered as Martha’s alcoholism and George’s years of battering turn into a malevolent battle of one-upmanship, sweeping the young newbies into their terrible game. As the endless night rolls on, the claws come out, truths are told and illusions irrevocably shattered.

Academic life is always a fascinating area to examine – a group of people thrown together sometimes for decades in an enforced hierarchy allowing egos to collide and under constant pressure to perform, their future dependant on their continued ability to direct and influence their area of study. No wonder then that many writers have attempted to unpick the feuds and foibles of this close community, from Henrik Ibsen who focuses on the competition for academic promotion and publication in Hedda Gabler to David Lodge’s series of comedy novel that show university life and the partner swapping whirlwind of conferences.

Albee’s approach combines these to examine not just the bullish scramble for position among male academics George and Nick who are instantly wary of one another, but opens out its far-reaching effect on their ‘civilian’ wives Martha and Honey – with Martha representing years of coming second to the pursuit of intellectual thought in both the eyes of her husband and, crucially, her father. So this is also a play about the nature of relationships between people coming from different perspectives who want different things.

The reference to Hedda Gabler then becomes crucial, and anyone who has seen the superb Ivo van Hove version at the National will see the complementarities between that play and this story of George and Martha. Hedda and Martha are women trapped by societal convention into marriages that will never make them happy, but neither can exist in isolation – they need the conflict, the chance to flirt, driven by the energy of the combustible nature of their relationships and the chance to exert their power over others, meddling with lives for fun. Had Hedda’s story not turned out as it did, had she stayed frustratingly married to Tesman for 20 years, it is not inconceivable that cruel, alcoholic and raging Martha would be the result.

While it may be difficult for many to shift their thoughts from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the well-known film adaptation, Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill successfully banish all thoughts of earlier incarnations with a fresh and deadly take on the warring couple. Hill’s George is seemingly a weakling, constantly belittled and worn down by his wife’s endless scorn, while Martha is brutal, unrelenting and acid tongued, but with Staunton’s incredible touch for showing the more broken inner life of someone who in lesser hands would be all-monster.

To reference another famous pairing, they have a touch of the future Macbeths; imagine they had never killed Duncan and assumed his throne. Had Macbeth refused his lady’s entreaties and remained the Thane of Glamis, all that childless ambition would turn upon itself, the once close and happy couple would be torn to shreds by her distaste for her husband’s cowardice, and his quiet resentment of her aversion to his scruples. This is what Hill and Staunton give us in their layered and cultivated performance.

Staunton has had an impressive couple of years with Gypsy catapulting her to a new level of popular acclaim and award success, building on an already varied and successful career. As Martha, she captures the many conflicting aspects of the character – the downtrodden wife and the sexy vamp, curdled femininity and masculine aggression – which constantly shifts the audience perspective on who this woman really is. We never fully sympathise with anyone, all in their own way venal and calculating, but Staunton shows us clearly how this Martha came to be. And it’s a gripping performance as she slithers from self-pity to sexual provocation, manipulating the affections of her guests, but they can’t turn their back for instant because her bitter recriminations are as sharp as a carving knife in their back.

Hill’s George is also a world away from Richard Burton’s more forceful performance in what felt more like a marriage of equals. Here, instead, the milder George has endured years of abuse for his lack of advancement beyond Associate Professor, something he seems resigned to and while occasionally hitting back with remarks on Martha’s age, it’s clear she has more power to hurt him. So, instead in the first two acts we see George’s continual degradation at Martha’s hand – and even to some extent fighting a losing battle with Nick – and while they seem to have played all these games before, tonight they go too far and something in George snaps which Hill convincingly portrays as a man pushed to extremes and reaching his limit of endurance. What follows feels like a restoration in George’s masculinity and position as Hill calmly navigates the aftermath of an explosive night.

The visitors make for an equally interesting pairing, not wide-eyed with shock at their host’s behaviour but faintly embarrassed and harbouring troubles of their own. Luke Treadaway’s Nick begins the evening with the perfect life – handsome, intelligent, beautiful wife and new job with everything to aim for and as he talks awkwardly with George, Treadaway offers the first hints of his deep ambition and growing arrogance. During the night Nick’s initial discomfort is swept aside by an inability to leave until his has fully charmed his host (or more particularly the hostess) and got them to believe in his fictional veneer. But again Martha is too canny for him and when given a opportunity to go home or stay and advance his career by indulging the President’s daughter, Nick makes his choice and seals his fate. Treadaway shows us Nick trying to cling on to his smooth and decent image but there are clear hints that his future is now out of his hands.

Likewise Imogen Poots’s syrupy Honey is almost a cliché when she first arrives, overly charming, innocent and rather oblivious to what’s going on. But she and Nick have their own less than moral history as the truth about their marriage and early relationship comes out. Poots has less stage time than the other characters but it’s enough to see Honey become wilful, angry with her husband for revealing their secrets and resentful of his lecturing. As they stagger home at dawn Treadaway and Poots show us a young couple facing a possible future as George and Martha, will their already cracked relationship lead them down the same path or has the night before given them enough warning to change their ways?

Tom Pye’s one-room set is a fairly traditional-looking academic home in the 60s full of books, objects and soft furnishings which give the cast plenty of places to move around and add variety to a long evening, and is simple enough not to take anything away from the verbal sparring. However with Ivo van Hove showing us the power of Ibsen and Miller without the clutter it would be interesting to see what it could look like denuded of its normal period setting, but that’s for another day.

This is a very wordy play and across three acts in three hours it makes for uncomfortable viewing. Macdonald’s direction is crisp, creating a sense of claustrophobia and increased loss of control as the evening wears on, which make each wince-inducing volley both so difficult to watch and simultaneously fascinating, as the tension ramps up and we wait to see how far the characters will really go. And in its display of animalistic mauling – Martha at one point is told to wipe the blood from her mouth – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has lost none of its ability to genuinely shock. Just don’t try to drink along!

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 27th May. Tickets start from £15 but there are ATG booking fees to be aware of and there is a daily TIX ticket lottery. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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