Tag Archives: Indira Varma

Faith Healer – Old Vic In Camera

Faith Healer - Old Vic

‘It can never be the same’, a complaint we hear regularly about the proliferation of online streaming while theatres remain closed or unable to operate at usual capacity, and in many ways it is true. The immediacy and intimacy are lacking on a screen, the buzz of the room as it ripples with the effect of the storytelling and staging decisions, the communal experience as a whole auditorium of strangers holds its breath in anticipation as the comedy, romance and tragedy of human experience plays out in front of you. Streaming, though a worthy and hugely valuable alternative in the last few months, just cannot replicate that feeling of being there. And then the Old Vic’s production of Faith Healer came along and changed everything.

Brian Friel’s incredible play ran for just five performances via the In Camera series and yet overcame all those distancing boundaries to become one of the most vital and affecting experiences of the year. Reconfigured as an online experience, the successive monologue format combined with three outstanding performances and a technical construction that used several innovative film techniques to enhance every aspect of the story. It was  an experience so affecting, so painfully intimate and so beautifully played it felt as though Friel had written Faith Healer especially for this format.

A Memory Play

Faith Healer is one of the most sophisticated examples of a memory play in which each character reflects on their years together and the key incidents that define their lives. Unlike A Glass Menagerie to which the term is most commonly attributed and uses a single narrative perspective that couches events in the memory or fantasy of the protagonist, Friel’s play allows each creation to speak for themselves in lengthy and uninterrupted flows of thought. The writer uses these perspectives to note that among three people who knew each other well, how differently they view the pivotal moments in their lives which are dramatically enhanced or reconfigured by the alternative viewpoints.

What makes Faith Healer such an interesting memory play is the complicated ways in which Friel uses impossible timelines in the retelling of their story. Frank, Grace and Teddy all refer to each other in the past tense, as though remembering events of which they are the sole survivor – an approach that cannot be born out as the true story reveals itself. So just what is the status of these reminiscences, are all of the characters alive, ghosts or other kinds of consciousness? It’s a throwaway concept but one that Friel has chosen deliberately to create drama in his play as the ‘truth’ becomes more ambiguous. That this only enhances rather than undermines his narrative structure is testament to the quality of his writing and the spell it casts on the viewer.

Collectively, these tales form a semi-complete picture in which Friel, like a historian or policeman trying to understand the evidence, encourages the audience to piece together these fragments of experience to find the truth of what occurred between the Faith Healer, his wife and his agent. But this is not a mystery to be solved so much as an exercise in the complexities of human relationships, the emotional damage people casually inflict on one another over many years while still clinging to the stability and sustenance the group offers.

Several recurring themes beat under the surface of this work and, like Translations, Friel is exercised by ideas of Irish identity, of retaining  a sense of cultural self in diaspora and the specificity of place in grounding emotionally or physically transitory characters, providing anchorage as personality becomes fluid. This is particularly felt in the repeated reference to ‘homecoming’ in the first two monologues as Frank and Grace, long absent from Ireland, describe returning both to their original family houses and later to the nation itself, where being among their countrymen proves liberating and fateful.

That these encounters are suffused with death is pertinent and both Hardys recount impromptu returns that foreshadow loss and result in contact with disapproving father figures who shape the outlook of both Frank and Grace in slightly different ways. That the couple contest the other’s version of events only adds to the complexity of unbreakable yet burdensome family ties which is often at the root of Friel’s characterisation, examining how domineering male figures create rebellion and dissatisfaction in their children.

Production Techniques

Matthew Warchus’s approach seems entirely fitting for a play about memory and displacement and in envisaging this production for the screen overcomes the limitations of the streaming platform by using a number of surprising filming techniques. The cast are all experienced screen actors and have an innate understanding of where the camera is and what it is doing at any given moment. This is woven through their performances without restricting their freedom to move around or change tempo as the story demands. Frank, for example, is the only character to stand throughout so Warchus – as with Three Kings – frames Sheen against the empty Old Vic auditorium which only enhances the idea that Frank has always played to empty rooms as what little audience he had dies away.

What is fascinating, though, is how confident the camerawork is and how meaningfully it captures the style of the play. There are no Zoom boxes here nor multiple angles to cut between, just a single camera trained on the protagonists as their confessional plays out. At moments of dramatic crescendo or poignancy the camera slowly focuses-in on the actor, edging nearer as the audience is drawn into their perspective, until the frame is filled by just their face, an intimacy with the production that no theatre experience can offer. Warchus even more daringly takes us closer still, until just the performer’s eyes are visible, a chance to see in painfully close detail where lies, self-deception, suffering and disappointment reside, drawing out the undercurrents of Friel’s play where what characters tell us and what they really feel are not always aligned.

There is a simplicity to this approach that yields remarkable value for the Old Vic, each character is given equal treatment, no one monologue suggested as more true than the others. To enhance the unfolding drama Tim Lutkin and Sarah Brown have designed a lighting arrangement that suits the filmic approach, casting different degrees of shadow around the speakers to ground or untether them as the story demands. Grace particularly seems to float in a sea of black behind her, while the comic lightness of Teddy’s version of events is far brighter, picking out the moments of affliction with darkness. But Lutkin and Brown do their best work in the final moments, casting concentrated, almost noirish shadows across Frank’s face as Warchus’s close-up creates a sense first of mania as Frank’s disordered mind explodes before a semi-reverent calm descends on the visuals as the story concludes. How this deep understanding of the play’s rhythms are reflected and enhanced by the filming choices is astounding, the medium adding something new and revealing to an already celebrated piece of writing.

Frank

Our first image of Francis Hardy is as actor Michael Sheen walks along a trajectory filled with chairs as though situated in the now empty hall after one of his performance to begin his first 35-minute monologue, setting the scene for everything that is to come. The light dramatically behind Sheen, Frank is already a man fighting with time, overwhelmed by memories of the not-quite glory days while reconciling the disappointments of a dwindling career as he questions what the years of showmanship have really given him.

Frank is not a Faith Healer in the American sense, there’s no evangelical optimism or grandiosity about his personality, instead he cuts a rather tragic figure right from the start, worn and reduced by his time on the road. A consummate performer though, his mediocre gift, which he freely admits only works some of the time, gives him little comfort, and Frank wearily describes the achievements he barely believes in himself. He balks at the word charlatan in a newspaper-cutting but never entirely contests the description, complains of the troublesome nature of the mistress who accompanies him and does an amusing impression of his refined cockney manager Teddy both of whom we are yet to meet. And while his profession should be about the hope and restoration that Frank gives to his audiences, instead we feel his loss, as though something has been taken from him rather than freely given.

Sheen uses far more movement on the stage than the other actors, pacing and turning from the harsh glare of the camera as the character fudges and hides from the truth of his life. At times, particularly in the second part of his monologue as Faith Healer concludes, Sheen has the confidence to turn his back to us addressing the empty darkness of the Old Vic auditorium, the actor perhaps taking the opportunity to perform to the house, but also reflecting Frank’s agitation in that moment. Few actors dare to do this on stage but it becomes part of the naturalism and variety within Sheen’s approach.

He knows exactly where the camera is and how to play to it, showing us more pointedly that Frank is hiding even from himself and having to recite the Celtic names of the towns he has passed as a coping mechanism, a calming methodology to keep him on track. With a soft Irish accent that reverberate’s Friel’s words so beautifully, Sheen’s performance is extraordinary, understanding all of the complexities of Frank’s character that make him a warm and often likeable storyteller, vividly recreating the scenes of his life, but a man at odds with everything he is, capable of great selfishness that hurts others while still reeling from the difficult relationships with his family and travelling companions. As the memories overwhelm and disturb him to such effect, you think it can’t get better than this.

Grace

And then Grace’s story is every bit as powerful, delivered in a heartbreaking monologue by Indira Varma who uses stillness to convey her character’s brittle subsistence. But it is the incongruities you will first notice, pulling apart the notions that Frank has implanted in our heads and realigning the audience’s understanding of the nature of their relationship and its chronology. Varma delivers these contradictions with a world-weary resignation, although a hint of frustration creeps in as Grace not only deflates the ego of the man she spent her life with but, for the first time, stakes her own claim to their life together.

It quickly becomes tragic as, hardly moving, Grace recounts the early days of their married life and her own complicated relationship with her father that seems to shape her experience as she buffers between the three men that feature in her story. Grace has the darkest experience in many ways and Varma is subtle in drawing out the small hurts and daily contempts that erode the character over time and as she sits unassumingly in her chair fiddling with a cigarette she never lights, her downcast eyes speak volumes about the life she has chosen and subsequently endured.

As she borrows Frank’s technique of naming the places they’ve travelled through, they become a form of lament, as though each place mired her further, inescapably and inevitably building to Grace’s moment of tragedy in a small Scottish town, the name of which powerfully links the monologues together. This part of the speech is devastatingly played by Varma, descriptive yet the effect on her suddenly ashen countenance is distressing to watch and the audience sees how entirely Grace is trapped in that place and time, an event from which she never recovers. With Sheen and Varma on such extraordinary form, you think it can’t get better than this.

Teddy

And then David Threlfall casts all expectation aside with a performance of comic acuity that upends your expectations of where this play is going. Again, it is Friel’s control of the facts that you will notice and, having dismissed Frank’s monologue as semi-fabricated in the light of Grace’s testimony, far more of the Faith Healer’s story is shown to be true. Employing a refined cockney accent and absorbing the mannerism and speech patterns of a man long-part of the showbiz world, Threlfall pitches his interpretation of Teddy perfectly to contrast with the intensity of what has gone before, seen from the perspective of the outsider to the marriage.

There is a shabby gentility to Teddy who addresses the audience with a conversational ease as he describes the acts he has managed in the past, though none of them remotely glamorous or above the level of variety performers. In fact, in Warchus’s otherwise timeless setting, there are nods to The Entertainer in Threlfall’s approach, a lifetime in the theatre but an end of the pier grubbiness that never escapes the shabby rooms that Frank resents. A characterisation that Threlfall holds onto superbly throughout his piece.

Threlfall is able to switch the mood from comic to tragic in seconds, a technique he employs in Faith Healer to considerable effect. This Teddy, revealingly, drinks ale incessantly throughout and is clearly troubled by the events he has been part of, things he seems to have run away from until the play takes him back to the village in Scotland and later to the police station in Paddington where the two key events of his interaction with the Hardys takes place. Watching Threlfall remove Teddy’s surface layer and travel back into these painful remembrances is very touching.

Collectively these three storytellers are particularly adept at recreating the events in an almost visual conjuring of memory with Sheen, Varma and Threfall becoming their characters so entirely that when they describe an earlier scenario, Frank, Grace and Teddy lose themselves in the the physical existence of the place they describe, physically gesturing to the ghost of a companion sitting across from them or referencing activity in another part of the room with such conviction that the audience too is absorbed by it.

With an appreciation for the vivacity of Friel’s language and its value in building character, place and emotional heft this production of Faith Healer was an affecting experience and we can only hope that someone pressed record on the Zoom feed to retain it for posterity. Reworked for live relay, these wonderful actors delivered a hybrid stage and screen performance that took your breath away and across 2 hours and 20 minutes gave the audience an intimate experience that being in the room wouldn’t have delivered so equitably. Streaming ‘is not the same’ of course, sometimes it is even better.

Faith Healer was available via the Old Vic In Camera until 19 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Seagull – Playhouse Theatre

The Seagull - Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’; the next few weeks promised much in London with the West End transfer of the Donmar’s City of Angels opening at the Garrick and giving Vanessa Williams her UK stage debut, Clybourne Park was due for a revival at the Park Theatre and in mid-April Timothee Chalamet was also scheduled to make his first West End stage appearance with Aileen Atkins in 4000 Miles. In unprecedented times, theatres and all other social venues have shut their doors for several weeks. At present The National Theatre is closed until Easter Day with others expecting to remain dark until early May. Yet the effects are likely to last much longer with shows unable to rehearse and schedules being rearranged for later in the year.  But all of these shows will be back and we will be surprised how quickly we return to business as usual.

One of the big casualties of the Covid-19 restrictions was Jamie Lloyd’s new production of The Seagull which had completed a week of previews and should have faced the press last Thursday before closures prevented any further performances. Marking the West End debut of Emilia Clarke and following-on from the lauded version of Cyrano de Bergerac, Lloyd’s work brings with it high expectation these days, a chance to see a text at its purest, where the emotional undercurrents of the story are given renewed clarity as Lloyd rolls back the years of performance history to attempt to rediscover the play anew.

Catching an early preview of The Seagull it was set to be another insightful interpretation of a well-known piece. It is Chekhov’s most magical play in many ways, not only is it set in a very theatrical world of actors, writers and aspiring artists but its four acts take place at the lakeside home of Pjotr Sorin (Robert Glenister), an incredibly romantic spot which the characters frequently rhapsodize over, noting the beauty of the lake, the starlit sky and the charmingly situated little theatre built in the grounds for the performance of Konstantin’s new play which opens the show. Location is incredibly important to Chekhov’s work and his characters are largely in places they don’t wish to be, either longing to return to a favoured home or trying to retain land they must sell. Here in The Seagull this beautiful country estate has a duel purpose, a perfect habitat on the surface, only one which causes plenty of claustrophobia and eventual pain for the group who gather there over the play’s two year time period.

This of course reflects the emotional strains of the play as well, the dream of becoming an actor which drives local girl Nina and of becoming a successful writer which is Konstantin’s purpose – the play he stages is an abstract form attempting to create a new type of art which is much derided by the audience. Both these roles are contrasted against successful artists whose presence causes much despair for the young aspirants; Irina, Konstantin’s mother, is a famous actor in the city and comes to visit her brother Pjotr and son but is dismissive of her son’s talent and is herself entirely involved with Boris Trigorin a famous writer. The pairing of Nina and Konstantin stand in opposition to Irina and Boris as symbols of what they want to be and are somewhat naive about how to survive as real artists.

Lloyd’s production uses an adaptation by Anya Reiss which relies entirely on the spoken word to conjure these various physical and emotional boundaries and while that’s a shame to a degree, it is entirely in-keeping with the style of this Playhouse season. Like Cyrano, designer Soutra Gilmour retains the wooden box and simplisitic staging, using microphones to emphasise the language of the play, allowing that rather than scenery to conjure the magic of the country estate. The four acts are styled like a picnic, with table and chairs used to reflect the different beats of the play with an initial line up approach facing away from the audience to allow the slow introduction of the characters and their various romantic and personal entanglements.

As the plot becomes knottier, the arrangement of chairs and people becomes more enmeshed, angular and mass-like, giving characters the opportunity to overhear what others think of them and to imply much about the offstage activities of the group. The Seagull has a number of crucial developments happen out of sight such as Nina’s ultimate fate between sections Three and Four where over the space of two years she finally leaves the area of her birth to follow Boris, pursue her dream of becoming an actress and suffers the squalid consequences of becoming involved with fame. There are major ramifications too for Konstantin who becomes the Chekhov character with the always significant gun. But no one actually leaves the stage for much of this production so words become the means to suggest the passing of time and to signify who is really present.

Reiss’s adaptation of Chekhov’s work is largely a good one, offering plenty of character variety to create the community feeling that exists on the estate. Early on Reiss allows her characters to work against Chekhov by making some quite plain statements about people’s psychological state whereas the original text is more opaque, allowing characters to imply, hint and weave around topics rather than address them directly, but as the story unfolds, the emotional clarity is given stronger reign as characters actively miss or ignore declarations of love or affection they do not care to hear.

It is tough to follow a production as successful as Cyrano however where Martin Crimp’s urban poetry not only told the story but was the story, verse so integral to the plot that it became a rare theatre fire of form, function and performance. Reiss’s adaptation is not so purposeful, and while engaging doesn’t have quite the same completeness as the earlier production. Comparisons are tenuous but having these shows in the same form – and presumably the forthcoming A Doll’s House will use the wooden box, plastic chairs, microphone arrangement as well – makes it difficult to not to assess how well it works as a technique on quite different plays.

Performance-wise, Indira Varma was stealing the show in early preview as the glamorous Irina, an actress at ease with her own fame and thoroughly enjoying the position of prestige it gives her within the family. Believing the world revolves entirely around her, even when it clearly doesn’t, Irina is dismissive of her own child, barely conscious of the other members of the estate and entirely absorbed by her love affair with the much younger Trigorin. Yet, Varma finds an emotional fragility underneath Irina’s layers of taste and certainty that feels the threat to her own happiness posed by Nina and while Irina tries to appear strong, Varma clearly demonstrates her vulnerability beneath.

Daniel Monks was also doing excellent work as Konstantin, an overly serious young man trying to develop an artistic career of his own while hoping to impress Nina who may or may not know of his love for her. Excellent as the lead in Teenage Dick before Christmas, Monks is a great choice for Konstantin, bringing a sense of the young man’s intensity and frustration with his lot in life and his speeches with Nina in particular suggest a sensitivity not dissimilar to his mother’s which is challenged later in the play when artistic renown proves far from his expectation.

Emilia Clarke may have felt at drama school that roles like Nina were not for her, and while Coronavirus is preventing her chance to perform, the part suits her extremely well. She brings a sweetness to the role initially, a young woman often physically separated from the crowd who is almost too scared to fully pursue her dream of acting until meeting Trigorin and craving the life Irina leads. As Nina’s story unfolds, Clarke introduces a more brazen manner, seeking out and dominating Trigorin’s time with little regard for any but her own feeling, and as the full consequences of that play out in Act IV, Clarke demonstrates well how little Nina was prepared for the realities of the life she dreamed of and how much further she can yet fall.

The surrounding cast provide plenty of texture as numerous unhappy love stories play out. Everyone is eventually married to the wrong person but obsessed with someone else including Tamsin Outhwaite’s Polina the wife of the Estate Manager who is in love with Patrick Robinson’s Dr Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn – everyone loves an unattainable doctor in Chekhov – while Seun Shote’s local teacher wants to marry Sophie Wu’s Masha (Polina’s daughter) but she loves Konstantin who barely notices her. And although described as one of the great male roles, Reiss gives Tom Rhys Harries as Trigorin little to do but be brooding and silent making it harder to understand why he is the cause of so much suffering for this family.

It may be on (hopefully) temporary hiatus, but this production of The Seagull was shaping up very nicely, giving a very different look to Chekhov’s work than we may have seen before but still finding the complicated undercurrents particularly among the four leads. ATG Theatres are closed until at least 26 April so let’s hope the virus abates and more people are able to see this production before the original end of the run. Whatever happens, there is great work out there just waiting to be seen. The show will go on again!

The Seagull is on suspension until 26 April at the current time and is scheduled to run until 30 May but do check the website for further updates. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Present Laughter – The Old Vic

Present Laughter - The Old Vic (by Manuel Harlan)

Noel Coward is a rather misunderstood and misrepresented writer in modern theatre; like Oscar Wilde, these days his work can be reduced to little more than a string of witty epigrams and famous phrases woven together into some increasingly outrageous plot, it’s all rather cosy – light comic farces perfect for an undemanding Saturday matinee. And regardless of whether the focus has a more rural setting or the stylish inhabitants of Paris and London, current presentations of Coward’s work come loaded with nostalgia for the 1930s and 40s, a period sentimentality about clothes and furniture which undeservedly preserve his work in aspic.

But all of this is a distraction from the various currents that flow through Coward’s plays, many of which balance humour and emotion to differing degrees. Coward was a prolific writer and while the West End has seen plenty of Hayfevers and versions of Blithe Spirit in the past decade – with a film version of the latter in production – his more complex works appear with far less frequency and colours our opinion of a more varied playwright than we ever have a chance to see.

The same writer who penned Madame Arcarti’s hilarious trance scene and left Elyot and Amanda throwing things at each other, also revealed the intense despair of drug addiction as mother and son battle with their demons in The Vortex, impressively revived as long ago as 2008 with Felicity Kendal and Dan Stevens. Such experiences reflected the aftermath of the era in which Coward lived, written in 1924 and presaging a time when the Bright Young Things would have to face a darker reality. But Coward’s perspective on relationships was equally revealing and even revolutionary. He may have broken our hearts with the gentle tragedy of Laura and Alec’s doomed love affair in Still Life (later filmed as Brief Encounter) but plays like 1933’s Design for Living involving a ménage a trois were morally and sexually ahead of their time. Let’s not forget that later in life Coward embraced the work of Harold Pinter and saw a kindred spirit eager to reframe the language of theatre.

Clearly Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus agrees and his new production of Present Laughter successfully jettisons a lot of the baggage of a Noel Coward play – the heavy sets, the knowing tone and obvious build-up to the famous lines – to create a production that rides the waves of comedy that Coward so carefully builds into the play’s construction while giving just enough room for the introspective moments that give his characters, or at least his themes, a grounding in reality. Led by yet another astonishingly good performance from Andrew Scott, by giving Present Laughter room to breathe the result is pure joy.

The Old Vic seems to be on a roll, hosting the West Ends debuts of Bill Pullman, Sally Field and Jenna Coleman in a memorable version of All My Sons was a huge coup and suddenly there is a new buzz about the place with an unmissable year ahead including a new play by Enron writer Lucy Prebble, a stage reunion for The Crown stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs and Beckett’s Endgame with Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe. Andrew Scott’s return to this theatre as egoist actor Garry Essendine looks set to consolidate The Old Vic’s status as the place to be for the next few months.

An excellent touring version of Present Laughter with Samuel West in the title role made it to Richmond in 2016 but the last West End production was at the National Theatre in 2007 with Alex Jennings. It is one of Coward’s finest comedies, examining the dual nature of celebrity where craved attention ultimately becomes a burden, and Coward simultaneously asks questions about sexual morality. Essendine has a wife he never divorced but he, and his circle, spend most of the play actively bedhopping about which the frustrated Garry speaks honestly in one of his finest speeches in Act IV.

Matthew Warchus’s production adds a modern twist by playing with sexual fluidity, making barely perceptible changes to the text to give Garry both male and female lovers. It works extremely well and if you had never seen the play before it would seem always to have been written this way. While this approach is becoming increasingly commonplace in classic revivals, here there is clear consideration of the wider purpose. Coward has points to make about the complex nature of attraction and how honest people are with themselves and others about their desires. Garry’s whims may come and go, but he is open about his need for one-night stands to bring comfort in his loneliest moments because he is unable to sustain a longer relationship. This exploration of physical desire in all its forms as a means to an end, as a distraction from Garry’s feelings of hollowness and vulnerability are fundamental to Coward’s play, so the gender and sexuality switches make perfect sense for a character desperate to be loved entirely on his own terms.

The tone of this production is quite meticulous and while the farce is allowed to unfold sometimes with considerable exuberance, there is a real confidence in how Warchus manages the build-up to the mini comic climax of each scene as well as the cumulative effect of that across the show. You feel that as director Warchus is fully in control however wild his characters become, succeeding because he well understands the rhythm of Coward’s text and those all-important currents that sit beneath the surface of the play. There is a crucial ebb and flow to the emotional responses in Present Laughter and Warchus’s skill is to recognise the ultimate poignancy of a play which occasionally creates a cartoonish silliness but is brilliantly counterbalanced by moments of genuine reflection and fear in which the characters come up against the emptiness of their lives, sometimes suddenly, sometimes creeping slowly across the scene until it starts to make sense of everything else that happens.

There is never an easy Andrew Scott performance, he’s not an actor to sit back and there is an intensity to all his creations. However lightly he wears it, he always finds the tipping point in each of the characters he plays, carefully pushing the balance as the production unfolds. It may seem like mania or wackiness but there is always a deep understanding of the intellectual and emotional drivers that create a real humanity in his performances, giving Scott the freedom to explore the absurd but also to dig into the more moving emotional distress beneath the surface to explain extreme behaviour.

Scott’s Hamlet was an intensely visceral experience, an overused word in theatre but applicable in the “excoriation of soul” that his broken and crumbling Prince of Denmark experienced, his grief and pain a vivid, almost physical presence in a genuinely heartbreaking performance. Here, as Garry Essendine, Scott gets to have a lot more fun playing with the role’s liveliness and timing to deliver a highly theatrical but surprisingly self-aware character whose better judgement is easily diverted by devoted admirers. Garry is elaborate, highly-strung, selfish, hysterical and sometimes childishly petulant but as with his Hamlet, we see a greater complexity within that speaks to Garry’s fear of ageing, possible loss of prowess and, most affectingly, a genuine loneliness that a string of meaningless encounters can never dispel. Like many Coward creations there is a level of self-deception that Scott finds but can only sustain while there is an audience for Garry to perform to.

Refreshingly, Scott speaks Coward’s lines as though Garry has just thought of them, there’s no sense of waiting for the big joke, instead he captures the rhythm of Coward’s dialogue leaving him free to be both inventive with the delivery style and genuinely hilarious. Throughout, Scott incorporates a raft of expressions and physical gestures that enhance the meaning of the line, used sparingly but to great effect. He knows precisely when to overplay Garry’s eternal performance using his dramatic side to get what he wants, and when to underplay the more insightful aspects in a role that reaches a very high comic pitch on several occasions. Yet his actions and increasingly frantic frustrations still feel both real and very human.

Scott gives this fascinating sense of fame’s illusory nature and within his creation demonstrates the extent to which other characters project their own impressions onto Garry, never quite seeing who he really is, and, as a consequence, there is an emptiness lingering beneath the surface. The comedy is wonderfully done but it’s the smaller moments of genuine connection with his lovers, of paranoia about the intrigues around him and Garry’s quiet sadness when he’s finally left alone that you will remember.

But Present Laughter is far more than a one-man show and Coward supplies a cast of comic secondary characters who all exist for a reason as part of the overall chaos that unfolds. There is a generosity within this Company that allows each performer to build their own relationship with the audience and maximise the humour in every role. Indira Varma as Garry’s wife Liz is entirely unimpressed and unflustered by her estranged husband’s behaviour, yet she is both less maternal and warmer than other interpretations. Varma’s Liz is genuinely concerned without seeming controlling, there is a sense of a real life beyond these walls which Garry’s behaviour constantly interrupts, and while Liz calmly appraises every situation exactly, there is an undercurrent of deterministic self-sacrifice in which only she can resolve the play’s sexual muddles.

Varma develops a lovely confederacy with Sophie Thompson’s Monica, Garry’s jaded and long-standing secretary. The time given to this supportive friendship is brief but important in establishing the long-awaited crisis point the play reaches. Affecting a light Scottish accent, Thompson keeps tight control of the characterisation, playing it fairly straight with a no-nonsense approach that continually refuses to indulge Garry’s moods or pander to his behaviour which results in a number of scene stealing lines that earn peals of laughter from the audience.

Notable work too from Luke Thallon – who so impressed in Pinter Five – as eager fan Roland Maule. With the sexual dynamics opened-up by this production, Thallon is given free rein to turn Roland’s obsessive enthusiasm into a puppyish devotion to Garry, bounding into the room with an incredible energy. Likewise, Joshua Hill as servant Fred, who shares some of his master’s lascivious tastes has his own range of brilliantly timed nods and winks as two men of the world converse to hilarious effect.  Every time these characters appear on stage they are enthusiastically received – it’s heartening to see early-career performers holding their own among the big stars everyone came to see and earning equal adulation from the audience.

Rob Howell’s gorgeous set has just enough 1930s detailing to imply era without being too rigorous about it, adding lots of art deco stylings and lounging spaces suitable for the home of an actor at the height of his fame, but Howell has also created an expansiveness that offers physical and emotional room for the sexual openness that Warchus draws so well from Coward’s text. The Old Vic’s production finally feels as though we’re shaking off some of the restraints that have shackled Coward to the past. So, let’s retire the caricatures of witty men with cigarette holders because Noel Coward’s importance as a stage practitioner is far more interesting than that, and this joyful production of Present Laughter is simply a wonderful night at the theatre.

Present Laughter is at The Old Vic until 10 August with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Exit the King – National Theatre

Exit the King - National Theatre

This week in quite different productions two Kings will be forced to confront the limits of their power, question whether they are fit to govern the realm and contemplate their own mortality for the first time. On both occasions what the audience sees will be the death pangs of their reign, the final struggle for autonomy and influence as they fruitlessly cling to power while those around them slowly withdraw support for their declining monarch, abandoning them to their inevitable fate. With press performances for the emotive King Lear at the Duke of York’s Theatre and the National Theatre’s quirky take on Ionesco’s absurdist drama Exit the King falling on successive nights, thematically there is considerably more that unites than divides these beleaguered princes.

Absurdist dramas are not quite so in vogue as they once were, and while the odd production pops-up at pub theatres and fringe venues, these 1950 and 60s classics rarely make it to the main stages. Modern attempts to recreate the anarchic oddity of their predecessors can feel rather forced or too consciously zany as the rather tiresome Pity provided this week, yet the best absurdist work succeeds and survives because beneath the strange surface it has something important to say about the state of the world or the human condition. Exit the King plays with our fears of death and the harsh inevitability of our demise; prince or pauper, it comes to us all regardless.

The 1950-70s were a hugely experimental time in European drama, and the era has left us with some of the twentieth-century’s best-known dramatists – Pinter, Beckett and Ionesco. But the work can be difficult to watch today with its loops of logic and flights of fancy that can seem daunting and incomprehensible in our relatively conventional West End structures. Pinter’s focus on tone rather than plot can be confusing, while the increasingly elaborate chaos or surreal lack of purpose in Beckett and Ionesco can make it hard to see their point when nothing appears to happen. Fortunately, Exit the King is one of Ionesco’s more straightforward stories with a handy time-limited structure that drives the play.

King Berenger wakes up one morning, over 400 years into his reign, to discover this is the day he will die. Having lived a vibrant life with two wives, both still present at court, and a series of great victories to look back on Berenger refuses to believe this is his last day on earth. Surrounded by his regal first wife Maguerite, and the more vibrant (and much younger) second wife Marie, as well as his physician, cleaner and guard, the King will pass through the various stages of acceptance before the fatal moment arrives, but will he go quietly?

Known for his emotional reinvigoration of the classics including Don Juan in Soho and Three Days on the Country alongside his new work as a writer, Patrick Marber directs with skill, favouring the more macabre and foreboding aspects of the plot over its sillier elements.  And in doing so, Marber highlights the parallels with King Lear. This faux medieval world also reflects a view of power that Shakespeare also knew, of monarchs divinely appointed by God, sitting above the petty rules of the common man. They command, control and shape society around them and believe themselves capable of fantastical acts. When Berenger at lasts realises his powers are waning, Ionesco represents this as a loss of magic, and the protagonist is no longer able to command the air to move or someone’s hat to rise at will. Like Lear, stripped of the ceremony and mystique of kingship all his frailties are exposed and the subsequent decline is rapid.

Both men call upon the natural world as a symbol of their lost power, failing to stem the tides that will engulf them and suddenly buffeted by the same winds as ordinary mortals, no longer shielded by their divine status. We see a physical crack appear in the wall of the palace which only widens as the time draws near, and although Berenger may not be physically cast out as Lear is, in the same way the world starts to recede from him as we hear that the cessation of his reign has driven people from the land, an empty kingdom with a dying King as dispossessed and purposeless as the wandering Lear. And like his Shakespearian counterpart, this causes Berenger to enter a kind of madness, no longer himself as he grapples for the first time not just with his own humanity but the imminent termination of it, as initial denial gives ways to resignation and despair.

Marber has taken quite an interesting approach that retains some of the extremes of behaviour and occasionally the daffy moments that earn some laughs, but he weighs it down with a darker overlay of fear and inevitability. It’s absurd yes, but also unsettling so the humour becomes wry and even uncomfortable as a once regal symbol becomes a frightened man begging for more life. Marber manages the pitch fairly well which veers continually from Berenger’s deep exploratory monologues as he tries to make sense of his life and imminent death, to the brusque management of his final hour by Maguerite, desperate to get on with it.

Designer Anthony Ward has set this somewhere between the aesthetic of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts and a slightly heightened mittle-European kingdom, full of medieval allusion, hierarchy and glamour. There is a slight seediness to the visuals which constantly, and deliberately, undercut the regality of the court, everything seems as though it has lived a tad too long with the King himself a vision of grubby excess and entitlement, as though his inevitable demise is now long overdue. It purposefully avoids generating any sympathy for the characters, reinforcing Ionesco’s implication that this is a death that needs to happen. And for the most part it is simply staged with a cracked stone backdrop bearing the royal crest and representing the palace with various hidden doors and window panels that allow Marber to vary the location and height of the production.

As King Berenger, Rhys Ifans turns up the volume on the grimy majesty of the King, not to the point of caricature, but enough to create a slightly off-kilter tone. His monarch is almost distasteful to look at, decked in pyjamas with an overly painted face which as the performance unfolds becomes caked and broken by sweat. Ifans shows the swings of mood from angry determination that he still has power to monumental self-pity and depression, raging and cursing against his fate. But he’s never really pitiable, and even as Ifans holds the room in the numerous soliloquies as Berenger tries to sum up his life, achievements and fears, Ifans ensures he remains an interesting but perishing figure, there to represent Ionesco’s theme on life clinging far beyond its natural expiration.

Equally interesting is the role of Queen Marguerite whose blank honest continually intrudes on her former husband’s self-pity, hastening the King’s end with frequentreminders of the ticking clock. Dressed by Ward, Indira Varma presents a stylish and stately figure, a 1960s Princess Margaret meets Elizabeth Taylor cross in a beautifully-tailored black velvet gown. Yet Varma offers a complex and cleverly ambiguous figure whose own motivations in the management of this death are highly questionable. Why is Queen Marguerite so keen to tell Berenger the truth, is it an act of kindness to prepare him for the worst or does she intend to profit from his passing? Varma visible scoffs every time her rival Marie speaks, showing considerable contempt for her younger and more romantic replacement, and although she allows everyone to moan and wail without interruption, she instantly snaps the subject back to the inevitability of the death on their conclusion. She seems wise and sensible, a much needed refresh in the kingdom, but a giveaway line perhaps in the play’s closing moments as Marguerite eventually guides Berenger towards the light, divesting himself of his body and worldly goods, where she instructs him to give the kingdom clutched in his hand to her – part of the ritual of death or a genuine power grab? Varma never let’s you know for sure, which makes the performance all the more intriguing.

Supporting the leads, Amy Morgan’s Marie is a flouncing French princess, all delicacy and devotion to her ailing husband, preferring to remind him of their happy past than prepare him for the future. Adrian Scarborough never lets you down, playing the comic oddity of the Doctor with a side-line in astronomy and Merlin impressions with verve, while Debra Gillett as Juliette the maid and Derek Griffiths as the Guard making the court announcements well utilise their smaller roles as equally peculiar inhabitants of the strange court of King Berenger. Together, they represent the various classes of an almost feudal structure that flows down from the King, through the middle-class professionals to the working classes at the bottom, a microcosm of the wider society. Ionesco’s point is that fawn and then flee as they do in the face of the King’s demise, death is a classless pursuer and it will be their turn soon enough.

Translated by Simon Scarfield, like much absurdist work of its time, Exit the King is less concerned with plot than with exploring themes of human behaviour. Patrick Marber’s engaging production builds on the central strangeness of Ionesco’s work, attempting to break down our ongoing battle with the idea of death and why no one wants to face it until they have to. The characters may turn away leaving Marguerite to conduct Berenger’s final moments, but would she be so composed when her turns comes? The scale of that question is explored in the way Marber, Ward and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone manage the Olivier stage throughout the production, carving its depth in half for much of the action, with a small apron into the audience, only revealing its full extent, grandness and gravity at the point the King eventually exits, making for a notable conclusion.

With a few days before press night, Marber’s production will inevitably sharpen and while Exit the King takes a more linear approach to storytelling than similar work of its era, the plot itself is deliberately secondary to the themes and behaviours presented, which can be both testing and disconcerting. The association with King Lear is an interesting (and timely) one, allowing West End audiences to see both shows in quick succession and appreciate their grand discussions of mortality all the more. Ultimately, they tell us that whoever you are in life and whatever your achievements, the conclusion is the same – we may never be ready or brave enough to face it but, in the persons of Edgar and (hopefully) Maguerite, we can try to leave good behind.

Exit the King is at the National Theatre until 6 October and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Treatment – The Almeida

The Treatment, The Almeida

Life is almost always the basis for art, be it theatre, film or painting, but the finished product often bears little resemblance to the original deed. What happens between the act and the representation of it is a transformation in which reality becomes heightened, frozen and removed from its wider context to give an audience a snapshot of events, a moment in time. The Almeida’s superb revival of The Treatment examines the process of transforming one woman’s story into art – or as one character sees it a “corruption” of truth.

As the play opens, Annie is telling her story to two film ‘facilitators’ Jennifer and Andrew who listen intently, apparently sympathising but occasionally interrupting with their expectations of how the story unfolds – expectations based on their movie-led ideas of drama and plot. Sweet, innocent Anne soon learns that her narrative is no longer her own as she is bombarded with improvements and the unsought attentions of Andrew who claims to have fallen for her instantly. Running in parallel the producers also meet playwright Clifford still trading on a late 60s fame that has long since faded. The story he proposes to them becomes mixed in with Anne’s truth, and as the boundary of art and life begins to fray, both storytellers encounter the bizarre world of the producers, the New York streets and the arrival of Anne’s husband.

First produced at the Royal Court in the 1990s, this assured and fascinating revival feels as relevant now as it must have done 25 years ago as the individual need to be heard has been given fresh life via social media while the unstoppable advance of reality TV imposes a glossy narrative order on the chaotic events of daily life. What is most interesting is the way in which the design creates an unnerving world in which the drab grey-panelled offices of the producers where fantasies are created feels more like real-life than the colour saturated and bizarre external locations around New York. And as Anne becomes more embroiled that distinction is increasingly important, so by the second act, designer Giles Cadle and lighting director Neil Austin have created an increasingly false and unreal visual aesthetic, like a Miles Aldridge photo come to life.

And the tone is equally unsettling; it starts out as a comedy with Indira Varma’s hardnosed producer constantly interrupting Anne’s rather simple story of being held captive, by taking the tale off on elaborate tangents that will make it more sell-able to the film’s audience. We suppress a wry smile and roll our eyes as Jennifer tries to preempt Anne only to be rebuffed by a less glamorous truth, but it says much about us that while we recognise that what we see on screen is a heightened version of reality, Jennifer symbolises our own innate expectation that stories will play-out in a certain way. If a man holds a woman captive and tapes her mouth, it must be for a sexual purpose, and Anne’s insistence to the contrary shows us just how clearly our perceptions of truth have been blurred by film and TV representations of similar incidents, and how frighteningly easy it is to start thinking about these things as clichés.

This seems to be at the crux of Crimp’s play and something that is demonstrated with skillful clarity by The Almeida’s production. If we think of the influence of these fictions on real-life as the blind leading the blind, then the bizarrely wonderful scene in which a sightless taxi driver takes Anne on a journey round New York makes perfect contextual sense. It’s utterly surreal but also a metaphor for what’s happening in the rest of the play where what you think you see and what you really see are not necessarily the same thing.

So, when Anne’s husband Simon (Matthew Needham) comes to find her in the city and encounters writer Clifford (Ian Gelder), it leads him to disparage the arts as the corruption of life, to the point where he doesn’t want to sit in a dark room for two hours and be lied to.  And it’s interesting that this searing analysis comes from the most ordinary person in the play, a man with no link to the glossy world that calls to Anne, but someone able to cut through the pretence with a reasoned and damning condemnation of both the characters and all of us in the audience watching a made-up show about a fantasy world. It’s a light and strange play but one that under the surface has so many things to say about the way we distort reality and use the arts to tell stories.

The performances are uniformly excellent led by Aisling Loftus as Anne, a mouse of woman who despite a girlish reticence that seems her default personality, has a surprising determination to tell her story exactly as it happens, demanding truth in a world of fabrication. Both over-awed by the producers and refusing to be railroaded by them, Anne firmly corrects every attempt to deviate from her tale with a nervous certainty – Loftus showing us that Anne is a raft of contradictions, seduced and repelled by the Hollywood world she is trying to escape to. Her continual confusion is at its best in the growing connection with Andrew as the two a drawn together, but her reserve tethers her to the familiarity of her old life as she faces a choice between true past and fantasy future. Loftus, playing it perfectly straight, gets exactly the right wide-eyed feel that offers many comic and enjoyably bizarre moments.

Equally beguiled by the clash of fantasy and reality is Andrew who falls for Anne’s simple nature and his encounter with her, while initially a trick to win her story, seems to wake him up to the falsity of the life he’s been living. It’s always a treat to see Julian Ovenden on stage and his Andrew is barely readable at the beginning, leaning casually against the wall as Jennifer holds forth, watching and absorbing what’s happening without actively participating. And Ovenden feeds that ambiguity through the performance, never quite sure if Andrew is genuinely taken with Anne or using his allure to make the deal, which adds a touch of danger to proceedings. But whatever his real motive, he is troubled by her presence, and, in a life dominated by other people’s made-up stories, it’s as if he’s been living in a bubble that suddenly bursts, showing him the world as it really is for the first time in years, a confusion which Ovenden navigates superbly.

Equally skilful is Indira Varma’s semi-monstrous Jennifer, who treats her own staff like dirt while stroking the egos of possible clients. Jennifer feels entirely in control of everyone around her, she has a seemingly unassailable power in her office, while knowing how to cajole and manipulate storytellers to deliver the kind of film she knows will sell. There’s very little empathy in her, a brutal business woman thinking about profits and bagging the next big thing, prepared to publicly abuse her staff, but Varma also makes her unexpectedly funny, emphasising Jennifer’s ridiculousness, so lost in the creation of fiction that she has no self-awareness.

There’s also excellent support from several supporting cast members, not least Ian Gelder’s fabulously self-absorbed odd-ball writer who clings to his former grandeur while trying to conceal his desperation, that ends up costing him more than his reputation, and Matthew Needham’s deeply sinister interpretation of Anne’s husband Simon who finds the big city unnerving but thinks it’s perfectly normal to tie his wife to a chair while he’s at work.

It’s all directed with style by Lyndsey Turner, and while there are long scene changes as the audience is shown an increasingly distorted cab ride around New York, it adds to the deliberately disjointed and uncomfortable feel the production strives for. One of the most interesting aspects is the use of layered conversations and at various points two or more separate discussion happen simultaneously, forcing the audience to decide which one they want to tune into. Partly it adds to the confusion but also more accurately reflects the way real speech happens than most stage dialogue.

This revival of the The Treatment is a wonderfully bizarre piece of theatre that has lots to say about the blurring of boundaries between fiction and reality, and the creation of art. In these days of reality TV and fake news it may be increasingly difficult to distinguish between truth and invention but Martin Crimp’s play remains a relevant and enjoyably odd show that reminds us that what we see on screen has been plucked, pulled and ‘treated’ until it barely resembles its original state. Perhaps Simon is right; life itself is fine, it is art that’s corrupt.

The Treatment is at The Almeida until 10 June and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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