Tag Archives: Ivo van Hove

Age of Rage – Barbican

Age of Rage, Barbican (by Jan Versweyveld)

The work of Ivo van Hove has proven divisive, the extent to which the director incorporates cinematic styles and influences into his work is a question of personal taste, so while some critics and audiences find work like All About Eve gimmicky, his parred-down version of The Human Voice was also criticised for not being gimmicky enough. So, it is interesting to look at the techniques he employs with the Dutch theatre company Internationaal Theater Amsterdam where the boundaries of all forms of artistic expression are easily and innovatively blurred. Building on long, immersive dramas including the acclaimed Roman Tragedies, Age of Rage, staged at the Barbican for only four nights, put a rock and roll spin on five stories in Greek tragedy emphasising the female impetus for violent revenge.

van Hove’s best work has focused on female protagonists and he is a director that acutely understands and can convey the interior female experience. And while there may be plenty of techniques employed in their presentation, these never detract from or overshadow the emotional substance of the lead and her context. The simplicity of the stripped-back staging choices for Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre sit alongside public-private divisions explored in All About Eve and the truly personal and deeply affecting experience in The Human Voice where unobserved deterioration was powerfully captured. Here in Age of Rage, van Hove’s work, co-adapted from Euripides and Aeschylus by Koen Tachelet, follows a notable drama trend in restoring and more fully excavating the role of women in Greek tragedy and returning a sense of agency, danger and determinism to their lives in a period usually associated with male bombast, war and all forms of directed masculine violence.

Like Jermyn Street Theatre’s 15 Heroines shown during lockdown and more recently Kyo Choi’s Galapagos, the understanding and presentation of women in Greek mythology as victims and chattels is being revised, and while the murder, rape and bestial transformation by the Gods of women has informed subsequent gender structures, expectations and behaviours, the consequences of these actions when instigated by women were severe and often gruesome for the men who betrayed, captured or violated them. Age of Rage places those female stories centre stage, showing how female-driven revenge truly shaped the lives of men.

Telling the story of the Trojan War through the fortunes of Agamemnon’s family, this production explores notions of inherited trauma and inter-generational suffering by comparing concepts of individual and national sacrifice. When Agamemnon slaughters his daughter Iphigenia to guarantee favourable winds for the Greek fleet, it sets in motion a chain of events that play-out over the 3 hours and 45-minutes of this intensive drama. Structured around five related and consequential narratives – Iphigenia in Aulis, Trojan Women and Hecuba, Agamemnon, Elektra and Orestes – there are both dynastic and thematic links across the show that see some of the same events occur in different places and periods, while subsequent characters feel the impact of those who came before. The extent to which individuals are used or destroyed to pay a larger debt is significant and the ruination of the innocent looms large across the show. The death of Iphigenia to support someone else’s family, another man’s war and the whims of the Gods is crucial to understanding the female position in Age of Rage and the events their fury unleashed.

Mother and daughter relationships disrupted by male intervention occur again and again. When Clytemnestra discovers her husband’s betrayal, the conversation focuses on why Agamemnon chooses to sacrifice their daughter in order to rescue Helen, his friend Menelaus’s wife. From here, two particular narratives emerge that flow through the remainder of the production; the first is the role of Helen in causing all the events that follow and her active part not just in the deaths of thousands of men in the ten year conflict that ensues, but also as the cause of innocent deaths among civilians where several male parents choose to offer up their children to the Gods for her sake and the victory of Greece over Troy for which the women of the story violently resent her. The second is the role of the Gods in guarding and shaping events and the extent to which mortals have any control over their destiny. The arrival of Cassandra in one of the later segments with her prophesies that come to pass are part of a theme about ritual and practice in Greek life, examining how far the behaviour of everyday Greek citizens is fundamentally driven by religion and the space between the divine and human, especially in maternal decision-making.

Although men are in the foreground in determining the narrative direction of Greek tragedy – they start and conduct the wars and sacrifice the children – their emotional life in Age of Rage is, on the whole, relegated and associated with compliance with social dictates and religious expectations. Likewise, the consequences for them are largely political, having to balance this pleasing of the Gods with adhering to the mob and honouring bonds of fraternity with other men. We see them interacting in formal structures as comrades, war leaders and as politicians choosing to support or condemn behaviours based on the exacting strictures of “manly” behaviour. No amount of pleading prevents Agamemnon and others from sacrificing Iphigenia or Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena, thus the King remains immune to the wailing of women in order to do his duty as a man. This is most notable when Orestes is chastised by his grandfather Tyndareus despite avenging his father’s death because he is seen to have been coerced by his sister Elektra. In the male-structured world in which Age of Rage takes place, deference to any woman in the play is perceived as weakness from which only disgrace can follow.

That the women break through this structure to dominate and fundamentally shape the play is vital, emphasising the cost of these choices, of the human pain and consequences that mires the Atreus family across multiple generations. This tension runs through the show, pulling the female characters into the centre of the drama and creating psychologically complex creations who are in equal parts sympathetic and monstrous, instigating murderous crimes that emerge from their earlier maternal wounds and long-festering resentments. Men may create dangerous situations and embark on drawn-out, complicated wars, but it is the women who hold on to their hurts and wreak a terrible devastation that shakes the very foundations of morality, bringing social upset. From Clytemnestra’s brazen murder of her husband and subsequent flaunting of her lover to the aggrieved Hecuba physically attacking men with her loyal followers and Elektra castrating the body of her mother’s lover, Age of Rage is a ferocious statement of strategic female power and bodily vengence.

And in van Hove’s production, that power extends to an extraordinary visual experience that seamlessly combines theatre, a heavy metal soundtrack, dance and an operatic grandeur that is intense, bold and fresh in its vision while never drawing attention from the emotional volcanoes erupting between the characters. Jan Versweyveld creates a representative metal framework around the stage from which items including bloodied corpses can be dropped into the centre of the action, or the rigging used as additional platforms to alter the staging levels by creating opportunities for the Chorus cum dance troupe cum mob to observe the very public behaviours of their royal family. Into that almost Brechtian space, van Hove allows his creativity to flow freely, unconstrained by the more timid styles of British theatre, using a vast video backdrop – largely used for colour and pattern that cinematic relay – and minimal props to set the scene.

The first Act, lasting around two hours, opens with a deep heavy metal prologue played on electric guitar with bursts of flashing light also designed by Versweyveld. Throughout this first section, the tone is trashy glamour, a rock concert of sound and colour drawn together in An D’Huys’s grungy sequin costume design that gives the piece a seediness that prevents the audience from connecting to closely with characters whose moral and personal aptitudes will never be straightforward.

The tone is different again in Act Two as the story accelerates a generation to become a revenger’s revenge, blurring the boundaries of crimes and their appropriate punishment. Focusing largely on Elektra and Orestes, this becomes a pastoral piece far from the sheen of the court where a base of mud physically and metaphorically mires the characters. Fed by constantly dripping water from the rigging, it represents people now steeped in generations of corruption, staining their lives and anyone who comes into contact with them – not least the crisp cream suit of Tyndareus denoting a man very much out of place in this agrarian setting. Smell too becomes an important storytelling device, expanding the sense of immersion as the fragrant incense and turbine-driven smoke of Act One give way to the earthy freshness of wet mud filling the auditorium as these former aristocrats, almost God-like in their power, status and (notably) seemingly immune from consequences, are physically brought down to earth where their bodies join the thousands of others who die in this story either in combat or in sacrifice. Blood will beget blood Macbeth states, and so it proves.

As an exercise in artistic creativity, van Hove’s easily combines theatre and dance to tell the story and understand its wider impacts. Dance is often a separate moment in UK theatre, either it is its own distinct art form or a chance to pause for a specific number within a musical or opera. But in Age of Rage, all kinds of contemporary dance is integrated into the narrative either reflecting the ritualistic moments associated with worship, the “headbanger” style of heavy metal which exemplified the uncontrolled female fury of the title or used as a Chorus that combines movement and song to comment on and progress the story. There is less sense of separation between these different media and instead van Hove is telling the story simultaneously via dance, music and dramatic exchange, each woven into the other, raising and enhancing each style to provide an integrated and often booming experience. Although opera itself is not used, the grand narrative approach, big characters and stylised visual design is operatic in scale, enough to capture the inter-generational themes, life, death and the god-drivers while still retaining its intimate and psychologically-intensive character focus that examines the human and family cost of tragedy.

The performances are equally bold and deep, particularly Chris Nietvelt’s Clytemnestra flaunting her womanhood and sexuality in a low-cut sparkly halter neck dress and knee-high boots while being vigorous in her maternal grief for a daughter snatched away. Later, as she overtly parades her liaison with a younger man and years of embedded rage that boil over, Nietvelt creates a complex, contradictory and rounded Queen who evokes quite opposite reactions. Hans Kesting as Agamemnon and Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Menelaus are ultimately weak men able to use their indiscriminate power but both unable to hold on to their wives or recognise any free will that might exist to defy the high price asked by the Gods. Hélène Devos dominates the second half as a fiery Elektra resenting every moment of her poverty and using that resentment to fuel a sustained rage over more than a decade while quickly manipulating brother Orestes (Minne Koole) to act in the destruction of their mother. Outside the core family, Janni Goslinga as Hecuba powerfully conveys the cost of motherhood while Ilke Paddenburg as Iphigenia and all the sacrificed children makes an important point about the universality of that grief as the body count racks up with visual representation on screen as dancing figures lost forever.

There is real moral complexity in Age of Rage that not only passes between generations but also refuses to let one act expunge other faults – Clytemnestra may have just cause to murder her husband but her lascivious lifestyle means her own death is equally justifiable. With smoke, wind machines, video design, brash costumes, music and mud, van Hove’s show on paper seems like a lot, bold and gaudy, yet in practice it has emotional depth and an energy that is redolent of European theatre and of the lives Greek tragedy represents. Performed for only four days, Age of Rage was a thrilling retelling of familiar stories, a rare chance to see a van Hove grand vision come so vividly and memorably to life.

Age of Rage ran at the Barbican from 5-8 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Human Voice – Harold Pinter Theatre

For the second successive week, a superstar director has taken a different course in response to the intimate demands of a character-driven play about relationships. Where Marianne Elliott suspended the breadth of her, often sweeping, vision to create a forensic analysis of sexual identity in Cock, so too does Ivo van Hove put aside his filmic style for an intimate monologue about the end of love. Starring Ruth Wilson, Jean Cocteau’s play The Human Voice, is a sympathetic study of a women driven to distraction by a final phone call with her lover to which van Hove brings shades of meaning and interpretation.

Not since A View from the Bridge has van Hove staged a play with so little paraphernalia. From Obsession to Network to All About Eve, van Hove has been interested in the place where cinema and theatre overlap, not just turning established films into theatrical productions, but how the camera can be used as a platform and as a revelatory tool. Network, set in a TV studio, was largely concerned with how individuals use, respond to and are affected by news media in which the protagonist is able to grandstand to a large, passive audience through live transmission. By contrast in All About Eve, van Hove placed cameras in private spaces where characters obscured from the stage audience but projected on screen held whispered conversations and asides that created confederacy with the all-knowing, all-seeing viewer.

While there are no cameras and no projection in this new staging of The Human Voice, van Hove probes that very same division between public and private, putting the audience in the voyeuristic position of observer to both parts of the lead character’s conversation. It is staged in what at first seems like a wide screen, a long rectangle of space surrounded by black. But it soon becomes apparent that this is in fact a window, a sliding balcony door of what we presume is a stylish block of flats for young professionals somewhere in a vast and, crucially, lonely city.

But designer Jan Versweyveld, van Hove’s regularly collaborator, gives us very little else to go on. Behind the window is merely a mottled cream wall with no pictures, no distinguishing marks and a home that has no visible furniture or personal effects. Our character is in a void, shut-off from the outside world and us by this substantial picture window behind which she is emotionally and physically caged, trapped significantly behind glass that mutes and contains her.

The effect is two-fold; first it deliberately empties the action of the play of any individuality, reflecting Cocteau’s text that names neither lover or their dog, gives hints of their daily lives, jobs, families or even the conduct of their affair, and instead creates an abandoned, broken-hearted everywoman in no defined era who has given everything up for a man including most of her friends. In response, van Hove places nothing in this space except the woman herself – or what is left of her – and the phone to which she clings and into which her vision of the world and all her hopes are projected. Things do exist beyond this space and into it she brings a referenced blue dress, paper and marker pens, even cleaning products, but there is considerable meaning in what we see and the life beyond the confines of this boxed space.

The second purpose is to place the viewer in the uncomfortable position of spy or interloper, making us privy to everything that happens; the things she wants her lover to know and the private, potentially shameful behaviours that she conceals at home. As this story unfolds and we observe her through the window, it becomes increasingly exposing as her state of mind and emotional control are shaken. Like Eddie Carbone’s self-destruction in A View from the Bridge, we are passive observers and entirely complicit in the outcomes of The Human Voice.

As a directorial technique, the reduced field of vision also brings considerable intensity and intimacy to this staging, shrinking-down the large performance area at the Harold Pinter to just a single viewing point within which the character can move around without losing the focus on her interior life or the building tension of increasingly unsatisfactory and technically disrupted telephone calls. Performed essentially behind a clear screen, a microphone provides the necessary projection which also allows the character to leave the stage as though entering other rooms of her flat or, quite naturally, walking around while on the phone which adds a dynamic and movement to what could easily be a static piece.

Where van Hove adds texture is through a carefully-chosen soundscape that partly brings additional contextual information but also indicates the chapters of this 70-minute drama. It is some way into the piece when our lead opens the balcony door indicating what it is for the first time and a rush of sound comes with it. A combination of traffic and night creatures instantly imply the buzz of a busy city far below, placing the character at a dangerous but important height above the city. In tandem, van Hove provides a soundtrack, a couple of empowering songs that the protagonist plays as she waits for her call and tries to gee herself up for the conversation to come. But in one spectacular sequence, even this is overlaid by a moodier, indie piece that in very cinematic fashion signals her feeling to the audience. It comes at a turning point in the action and although Beyoncé is audible underneath and we see the character shouting into the phone, her exact words are obscured by this track and brilliant yellow lighting that marks an energy shift, leaving us to question her state of mind thereafter.

Within the text, Cocteau leaves the audience to wonder how much of what we see really happens. This viewer is given one half of a conversation conducted on the phone and in a credit to the writing doesn’t leave the main character to repeat what she has heard for our benefit and instead she just reacts to it. We hear the phone ring and, in reference to an earlier time of telephone exchanges, multiple callers appear to intrude on the same line adding to moments of light relief if not outright comedy to leaven the tension momentarily and allow the writer to alter the shape of the story. But later in the play, we begin to question whether there is anyone on the line at all, is this woman, as she says, claiming a final phone call with the love of her life before resignedly accepting the end of their relationship or is there another explanation entirely?

There is a decided separation between how the woman wants to come across, to be considered and remembered, and how she really is. We see her repeatedly assuring her lover that she is well, her voice is calm, alluring even as she tries to be a good sport about it all. She always knew, she claims, that it would end and has enjoyed their time together on that proviso, a model breakup of adult acceptance. Yet, there are hints that there is a specific reason for this untimely separation, another woman, an engagement announcement that perhaps have hastened its end and affected her far more than she shows with only a few spikey comments revealing a deeper affliction to him at least.

So what is her purpose here? Is this truly a decent and civilised goodbye or is the woman using this platform to remind her erstwhile lover what he is missing? Is her seductive tone on occasion and reference to memorable times a strategy to lure him back, one that backfires horribly when she is unable to contain the resentment and distress that come tumbling out across their multiple attempts to connect. And is he worth this pain? There are several hints that he is lying to her about where he is calling from and presumably also the true nature of his connection with another woman. Why has he refused to collect his own belongings and his dog from her flat, sending a servant or associate known as Joseph to do it instead and why does she never call him, is it only because she doesn’t know where he will be or is it for some other reason of concealment. Cocteau leaves these big questions hanging – what could possibly have happened between this couple that necessitates a final phone call but no meeting in person, and just who is really to blame for its conclusion?

The biggest question of all is what is the woman’s state of mind which a lengthy section of the play asks us to reconsider. In her frustration at being unable to articulate her feelings clearly and calmly, is she practising a further conversation with him in her head the way we all do sometimes, only here she is verbalising her half of the dialogue for the audience’s benefit, or has she been talking to anyone at all? Is this whole hour an entirely imagined scenario in which her emotional despair has led her to believe she is in a 60-minute series of calls saying the things she could never do in real life, or, darker still, are there multiple personalities at play, the constant interruptions from other people on the lines, those ‘listening in’ and the woman seeking a doctor, are these merely other aspects of her broken psyche?

Ruth Wilson is always an actor to see on stage and here she captures all the complexities of feeling and the multiple possibilities her character presents. Teaming-up with van Hove once again following their striking Hedda Gabler, Wilson has a unique ability to turn her characters inside out on stage or screen, showing the audience the tumult beneath, and here the wounded underbelly is on full display across a commanding 70-minute performance.

Evolving seamlessly from rational, controlled caller to brittle ex-girlfriend, from fury with the position she has been put in by this man to shy, seductive and sometimes manipulative, Wilson leads the audience through this unfolding conversation as it reveals all the layers, contradictions and engulfing sadness within the women on the phone. Holding together a person who doesn’t want to be looked at but cannot bear to be left alone, Wilson edges her character nearer to the edge as her outward image and inward agitation contend.

Cocteau’s play still feels remarkably alive and relevant 90-years after it was first performed, capturing the tragedy of lost love and the emptiness it leaves behind. It is a quiet play, full of nuance and subtle moments that require close attention as the tides shift within the narrative, and the combination of Wilson and van Hove once again prove a dynamic pairing in this revival, with its understanding of human emotion and empathy for the broken hearted that feels both timeless and contemporary.

The Human Voice is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 9 April with tickets from £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Streetcars, Smoke and Southern Belles: Contemporary Approaches to Tennessee Williams

Summer and Smoke Streetcar and Glass Menagerie

In the week that National Theatre at Home broadcasts the Young Vic’s superb 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s timely to note how representations of Tennessee Williams’s work has changed as a result, with a broadening of approaches particularly visible in the last 18-months. As a great American dramatist, Williams’s timeless understanding of human emotion and the particularly explosive dynamics of family groups has always been such a notable feature of his writing and for which the latest crop of productions have scruitinised his work. There has been a shift from period-focused productions that situate Williams’s play squarely in their 1940s and 1950s context to more contemporary or undefinable settings, while entirely reinterpreted productions of big hitters StreetcarCat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, which recur with some frequency, have shared the limelight with less celebrated plays as directors made an impassioned case for the value of Williams’s wider portfolio and new ways of seeing his work.

The screening of the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire via National Theatre at Home, available since last Thursday, is a valuable reminder of what a landmark production this was in several ways, beautifully skirting the boundaries of reality and illusion so redolent of Williams’s tone and characters. Benedict Andrews’s modern approach brought revelatory insight to this frequently performed classic, representing Blanche as a vulnerable predator whose declining mental health is so tangibly associated with a youthful tragedy and the subsequent denial of her natural instincts. There’s nothing timid about the nature of desire in Andrews interpretation, it is passionate, explosive and ultimately damaging, and since 2014, productions have increasingly taken this approach to staging the Williams canon.

Rediscovering the Emotional Power of ‘Lesser’ Works

The most significant consequence of this has been for venues to investigate the broader work that Williams has produced. A prolific playwright with over 100 full length and One Act credits, the opportunity to see and reassess some of these pieces has been a fascinating one. Rebecca Frecknall’s Summer and Smoke for the Almeida which earned a West End transfer to the Duke of York’s, has perhaps done more than any other Williams production in the last decade to broaden our perspective of the writer. Stripping the production of staging and locational debris, Frecknall’s production brought a powerful resonance to the central relationship between socially awkward Alma and lonely Doctor John that was as affecting and emotionally loaded as anything you’ll see in Streetcar or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The focus on the tentative intimacy between these two fragile personalities was spellbinding as they movingly failed to find a rhythm, always out of step with each other on personal trajectories that unravelled and reconstructed their characters, making it impossible to be together.

Frecknall understood the rhythm of Williams’s writing so well, the heartbeat of a play in which its two protagonists are so trapped withing their own nature and so confined by the public perception of their personality that they are unable to respond to deeper calls within themselves. For Alma these are the earthier, animalistic impulses of attraction, whereas for John it is the more soulful demands of his heart. The clarity and power of this was both tangible and devastating in Frecknall’s production, making a startling case for the value of this rarely seen play.

Theatre Clywd’s production of Orpheus Descending which transferred to the Menier is by no means Williams’s best writing, to a degree lacking the simmering tension of family secrets, using the arrival of a stranger to unlock the past which partially lessens the impact of its consequences. Yet, this enjoyable version had much to say on Williams’s theme of caged personalities as store owner Lady was drawn to drifter Val. Here we particularly felt Williams’s empathy both for women who subvert their impulses as Lady does through her respectable marriage to Torrance, and for those whose natural exuberance and persistence destroys them as it does with Carol Cutrere. This insight really gets to the heart of so much of Williams’s work as the external ordinariness of his female characters in particular contrasts with the raging unfulfilled desires within them. Therein lies their essential tragedy, that small-town society disapproves of and sometimes actively persecutes the sexual need and expression of the Carols and Blanches in Williams’s plays but is more accepting of male promiscuity, confines the female characters even further, creating shame and self-loathing that empathetically drives them to the physical and psychological edge of society .

Finally, the King’s Head put together two rarely seen short-plays for its Southern Belles programme in July 2019 exploring sexuality and gender in the One Act pieces Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens. This proved a meaningful double bill, one that confirms Williams’s interested in hidden, unconstrainable and ultimately destructive emotional layers within the individual. There was also a fascinating power dynamic in both duologues that questioned how these two relationships were affected by monetary transaction and social status. In both an ’employer’ figure utilises their seniority to make demands they are not longer able to constrain, wrongly (perhaps) assuming the other returned their feelings. What was so interesting about Jamie Armitage’s approach was that central uncertainty, showing how commandingly Williams could relay shifting power dynamics, building scenes to a point where the narrative and the lead characters must make an all or nothing play, leaving them vulnerable and exposed.

Staging Simplicity 

Supporting these internalised and more emotionally suggestive approaches in which the external need to be ‘respectable’ contends with a character’s natural and often wilder impulses, staging approaches have become increasingly simplified and symbolic, emphasising atmosphere and tone.  A general trend across theatre which has also released the works of Chekhov and Pinter from their period confinement, with notional rather than explicit set detail contributing to this wider reassessment of Williams’s themes.

Both Southern Belles and Orpheus Descending performed in the three-quarter round opted for representative sets, implying just enough reality to indicate setting and era to the audience while clearing the main performance space for the interior character experience to fill the room. Designer Jonathan Fensom implied the inside of Lady’s store with a wooden slatted backdrop, representative seating area and a hint of the other rooms. Similiarly, Sarah Mercadé for Southern Belles also took an indicative approach with a few carefully positioned  pieces of furniture, while draping the small King’s Head auditorium in pink fabric. Both designers provided just enough visual information to prompt the audience’s imagination, while giving the actors a platform to prioritise intimacy between the characters and their emotional excavation.

Arguably, this simplicity works best in smaller spaces and when Benedict Andrews took a similarly parred-back approach to his disappointing 2017 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in which designer Magda Willi created a monied and stylishly-minimised set, the oddly cold atmosphere failed to fill the Apollo’s cavernous space and gave the production a hollow ring. Set design has to reflect the heat within Williams’s plays, so it is interesting that Summer and Smoke had no such problems when it transferred to the Duke of York’s where its entirely representative set worked just as powerfully in the close confines of the Almeida as it did later in the West End. Very little in Tom Scutt’s design indicated the play’s location or era, instead a semi-circle of pianos, a metronome and lighting became the physical substance of a play that used music and beat to chart the emotional rhythm of the central relationship with considerable success, leading us back to Williams’s fascination with the line between reality and illusion.

James Macdonald’s Night of the Iguana may have bucked the trend for simpler sets last year but strong characterisation by Clive Owen and Lia Williams overcame the cartoony background to give a captivating depth to the conversations between the alcoholic cleric and the unassuming traveller. In spite of this, the general trend since Andrews Streetcar has been a sharper focus on using the text and Williams’s language to create tone and claustrophobic tension between the characters – the fact that budget and space limitations has meant this way of looking at Williams’s work has emerged largely from the smaller Off-West End and Fringe venues is testament to their influence within the industry where visual trends don’t just filter down from the top.

A New Context – The Future of Characterisation

Some of the most fascinating developments have been in reconceiving a play in its entirety, changing not just its era but thinking about character and context that take interpretations of Williams’s work in quite different and exciting new directions. Making a case for the absolute universality of the writer’s emotional constructs, director Femi Elufowoju jr completely reimagined The Glass Menagerie at the Arcola last autumn, retaining its period setting but making the working-class Wingfield family African-American – a decision which worked seamlessly, adding a fresh dimension to a well-worn story.  With its notes of faded dreams and missed opportunities, the production developed an added nuance without changing a word of the original text, shifting the emphasise to the limitations of the American Dream and its aspirations while adding a deeper but valuable social and political commentary – a layer that Marianne Elliott also extracted from her similar treatment of Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Who knows what further levels Ivo van Hove would have discovered (or lost) in slimming Williams’s play to two hours, and performing it in French by a Parisian company, led by the Belgian director. With Isabelle Huppert  playing the role of Amanda, this postponed production, which was due to arrive at the Barbican in early June as the second stop on a European tour, may be another theatre casualty of the pandemic, but its very existence speaks to a new interest in reinterpreting Williams and examining the application of his themes in different international contexts, even in translation.

These productions open enormous possibilities for the future of Williams’s work where the universality of the human experience and the ways in which societies attempt to define and confine the individual are applied to entirely new scenarios. The destructive impulses that Williams writes about are not unique to American society and if Inua Ellams can relocate Chekhov to Nigeria, then Williams can exist anywhere that a physical heat and secrets drive human behaviour.  Recent productions continue to push the boundaries of interpretation, increasing our understanding and appreciation of one of the twentieth-century’s most enduring playwrights. ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic’ Blanche exclaims in A Streetcar Named Desire; no matter how and where his plays are staged Williams always shows us the painful fragility of both. Let’s keep pushing.

A Streetcar Named Desire is freely available on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel until Thursday 28 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


All About Eve – Noel Coward Theatre

All About Eve by Jan Versweyveld

Screen to stage adaptations have become increasingly common in recent years and 2019 will see plenty of new film-based shows heading to our theatres. Predominantly musicals, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 is in preview at the Savoy, as is Waitress starring Katherine McPhee at the Adelphi, not to mention a Theatre Royal Haymarket run for Heathers The Musical at the end of last year, while there is a strong possibility that both the musical Mean Girls and Disney’s Frozen will become the latest Broadway imports to hit the West End. Meanwhile, the adaptation of Trainspotting Live was lauded at festivals up and down the country, proving that dramatic film can also have plenty to offer as a stage experience.

Ivo van Hove has been at the vanguard of this new style, blending film and stage techniques to create a new subgenre of the arts, one which uses onstage technology to retain a story’s movie heritage, while playing with the theatricality of the material to either draw our or downplay the emotional experience of the characters. van Hove creates a hybrid experience within his adaptations that ensure the audience remain conscious of its film origins and by using the same fluidity of pace as cinema, never allowing the show to become self-consciously stagy or artificial.

It is an effect that can be hugely divisive, and while Network at the National Theatre with Bryan Cranston enjoyed a sell-out run and a current Broadway transfer, it split opinion with its use of roaming cameras and giant video screens to comment on the responsibility of television news. Likewise, an earlier production of Obsession at the Barbican with Jude Law, based on The Postman Always Rings Twice earned even more derision for the vast metaphorical hinterland it created on stage in which a highly stylised film noir played out. This director’s work is either your taste or it isn’t, so responses to this new production of All About Eve are likely to be equally contentious.

The 1950 film is one of the finest movies ever made, a sharply told and biting behind-the-scenes examination of star power and female ageing in an industry that is constantly looking for fresh faces. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film is a satirical, but probably truthful, depiction of the pursuit of fame and the unstoppable ruthlessness of an individual hungry for the limelight, told through the interaction of six characters whose lives are changed by the stage door appearance of a seemingly gentle and starstruck young woman who inveigles herself into the life of stage goddess Margot Channing.

van Hove’s production has everything we’ve now come to expect from the superstar director with it’s leading lady boxed-in by the apparent limitations of her life. Long-term collaborator Jan Versweyveld creates a bare, ugly dusky pink room, a vast emptiness containing nothing but a dressing table (in a fixed position permanently on stage as the scenes change). Margot is devoted to the theatre, but despite her lover Bill, a director, and best friend couple Karen and Lloyd, a playwright, she remains at a distance from them. Like previous van Hove protagonists including Hedda Gabler and Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge, Margot is in a box of her own making, one that the events of the play will help or force her to break out of.

Versweyveld soon starts to play with the space and on three sides, the walls lift to reveal a backstage area, a semi-junk yard of props and set, dominated by large-scale photographic portraits of Margot carefully positioned to catch your eye. The point is to suggest a world beyond the theatre where artifice is stripped away, a real life far from the self-creating dramas of this little set where another kind of life is being lived if only Margot can move beyond ego and her inherent prickliness towards it. Pointedly in van Hove’s direction, for a long time we only see her in this room and the attached bathroom, never able to break out of the confines she has set around herself.

As the story unfolds, van Hove introduces the camera techniques used to such effect in Network, slowly at first, a live feed from the dressing table mirror splayed across those bare pink walls, now a giant video screen, revealing the unrelenting close-up of Margot’s face as she removes her theatrical make-up. Later what we see on the screens becomes more complicated, no longer a direct reflection of reality but a distorted image of herself, the slowly ageing face a fantasy project from her mind, fearing the irrelevance she knows is coming with Eve hot on her trail.

Repeatedly, the cameras are used to show us off-stage activity, Margot’s quite graphic bathroom reactions to the famously “bumpy” party scene for Bill’s birthday in which she creates havoc for her guests – if you’ve ever wanted to see Gillian Anderson drunkenly vomiting then now’s your chance – a location repurposed later when Eve has finally conquered this space, using the bathroom to hide her reaction to critic Addison’s meddling. More of Bill’s party happens in the crowded kitchen, also stretched soundlessly across the vast screens, as the main stage is given over to Margot’s self-pity at the piano. It’s an interesting technique, one that creates texture but also distracts the audience from what is happening on the main stage, an approach that feels purposeful to retain a distance from the emotional lives of the characters, as if to say these are trivial self-perpetuating dramas that are less important than the overall effect – as one character rather amusingly points out “they’re actors, they’ll get over it”.

All About Eve is rich with detail which Versweyveld subtly changes as Eve’s power grows. Look out for the slow replacement of pictures in the backstage area, with Margot dwarfed or obscured by Eve portraits instead. An D’Huys’s costumes also subtly suggest the changing of the guard, taking Margot from the striking red that is a feature of all her costumes for much of the play including some stunning red dresses, morphing into black and white as she loosens her grip on fame and allows her inner life and love for Bill to change her. Note too that Eve adopts the signature red as her power grows, a baton handed between the generations as their priorities shift.

It’s no easy thing to step into the shoes of Bette Davis, but Gillian Anderson has Margot Channing exactly. Somehow it manages to be a bigger and smaller performance at the same time, showcasing first and foremost the deeply riven insecurities that drive her more outlandish behaviour. Anderson’s Margot is waspish rather than vicious so as the play opens, she is entirely caught up in her own life – the performance she’s just given and the man about to fly to Hollywood – that makes her treat the nervous Eve with a carelessness born of distraction rather than malice, a singular encounter that will be scarcely remembered by anyone tomorrow except the star struck girl.

Yet as Eve roots her way into her life, Anderson charts how brittle Margot’s ease and surety really was. While Davis could only be spiteful and ranty, our modern times, allow Anderson to be an ugly drunk, slurring and staggering around the party scene, upsetting each of her guests in turn. What follows is a chance for rehabilitation, a break through moment that in the rest of the play allows Margot to pursue the things she really wants, a transformation that Anderson makes both credible and warming.

Lily James as Eve matches her at every moment with a carefully constructed performance that draws the audience into her game as much as anyone around her. First, we see this sweet and awkward girl bat her eyes shyly in Margot’s dressing room but soon actively supervises the scene change. James’s Eve lurks at every opportunity, sidling around the set to overhear important conversations and manoeuvring herself into position, ready to grasp her chance when it comes. And note in the relayed kitchen scenes on the video screen her eyes seek out Margot’s director boyfriend Bill at every opportunity.

The play notably shifts a gear in the second hour as Eve takes her first big step into Margot’s shadow, and from that point on James shows us the duality of her character, the pleasant face no longer quite masking the frustrated schemer. Her palpable fury after a showdown with Bill leads to a well-played tantrum, while the steely switch in a similar confrontation with Karen in a restaurant bathroom is James’s highpoint in a role that showcases her versatility and ability to command the stage as well as her co-star.

The supporting performances are equally full of texture, creating the world around the warring women that is just as dominated by ego, bitterness and struggles for power. Julian Ovenden rises above all of that with a performance that draws out Bill’s essential decency, the good-guy director whose relationship with his leading lady is full of chemistry. There is a genuine romantic feeling between them that Ovenden fills with hurt as their partnership sours, while still making Bill a match for the tempestuous Margot.

It’s wonderful to see Monica Dolan in a more glamorous role, playing friend and confidant Karen who develops an excellent partnership with Rashan Stone’s Lloyd as their own marriage is affected by Margot’s behaviour and Eve’s machinations. Stanley Townsend is superb as the silky critic Addison DeWitt who makes for a more physically imposing figure than the film’s George Sanders, and while he feels underused his own big confrontation with Eve is both shocking and tense.

The movie to stage adaptation is becoming increasingly prevalent and an NT Live screening of this one that translates it back to cinema will add a further dimension. Eschewing an interval as always and running at two-hours straight through, van Hove’s distinctive and often stylised work doesn’t set out to provide a deep connection to the characters, often drowning them out with music or distracting with video and as a result, you may not feel emotionally satisfied by an approach that reinforces the central message of All About Eve – nothing is ever what you think it is. So while the dialogue and scenarios are drawn directly from Mankiewicz, if you want a faithful depiction of every line, shot and intonation then just watching the film again is probably advisable. This All About Eve is something quite different, same story deliberately new frame with staging that pushes at the boundaries of theatre and film.

All About Eve is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 11 May, with tickets from £15.Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Network – National Theatre

Network, National Theatre (by Jan Versweyveld)

Film techniques are increasingly becoming part of the language used by modern theatre-makers to tell their stories, and your view of that will largely depend on how traditional you like your theatre. A year ago, Robert Icke staged a slick and movie-like interpretation of George Simenon’s novel The Red Barn at the National Theatre, swiftly followed by a vibrant Hamlet with newsreels and close-ups at The Almeida. Where once the two arts would exchange little more than personnel, now cinematic styles, approaches, and particularly the technology of film is one of the ways directors are choosing to engage audiences and reimagine well known plays.

Ivo van Hove has been attempting to shake-up British theatre for some years, presenting stark and emotionally-charged versions of the classics including A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler. Earlier this year, his production of Obsession with Jude Law at the Barbican introduced more radical techniques including large screens with projected imagery that proved to be love-it or loath-it marmite for the established critical press. His latest venture at the National will surely be the same, bringing theatre and film closer together by staging Network, based on the 1976 Paddy Chayesfsky film of the same name.

With van Hove’s work in general, I’m firmly in the love-it camp, and while the stories themselves don’t always stand up to scrutiny as Obsession proved, his innovative interpretations feel like a breath of fresh air – just watching his creations unfold in unexpected and inventive ways makes for a fascinating and engaging night at the theatre. And Network is equally enthralling, interpreting a rather strange story in a slick, fast-moving production that manages to reveal the media’s rather shallow relationship with truth and makes profound statements about the concept of collective action, all the while being true to its original movie roots.

Newscaster Howard Beale is being pushed into retirement by the network who want a younger face on screen, so a week before his final broadcast the disparaged Beale reveals he will shoot himself live on air. Initially outraged by this PR disaster, his bosses try to pull him off the air immediately, but that’s until ambitious new TV executive Diana Christensen senses an opportunity to produce a different kind of news show. With Beale back on the air with a no holds barred show, the network discovers giving the people what they want may help the ratings, but with truth and integrity at stake, the cost may be more than they bargained for.

Van Hove directs with a deliberate sense of controlled chaos with scenes running seamlessly into one another, conveying the frantic sense of a busy newsroom and the fast-paced lives of those within it. But van Hove also knows when to insert moments of stillness, reflection and consideration, slowing-down scenes to give Howard the opportunity to connect directly with the audience in his political monologues or in moments of enlightenment when he discusses the nature of the world with the Chairman of his network.

Drawing directly from the film and mirroring the work of companies such as Complicité, van Hove merges traditional UK and European styles of theatre, an increasingly presence in his work over the past few years. The stage is dominated by a multi-purpose giant screen centre-stage that becomes integral to the action as both a representation of the TV screen that Howard appears on, frequently showing adverts in the background of the action, and as a place to project individual close-up scenes filmed by roving cameras to capture intense interactions taking place at the back of the vast Lyttleton stage cutting between the two actors in the style of the film.

And it works very effectively, giving a sense of the intimacy that cinema creates while establishing a story set in a changing age of newscasting, where entertainment began to trump merely purveying the truth. For the second time this season, new shows are asking audiences to think about a turning point in media history and how it has subsequently shaped the way information is now conveyed to us. And, just as Ink demonstrated how pandering to popular expectation created an insatiable demand for increasingly outrageous content, Network also shows how a chance decision unleashes a Frankenstein’s monster which the company rapidly loses control of.

Network may be big, brash and spectacular to look at, but there are also strong messages about the role of journalists in presenting the news, encouraging the audience to consider where the line between entertainment and information should exist. ‘Television is not real’, is a constant refrain with calls from the increasingly troubled Howard for his viewers to turn off their sets and take collective positive action to make the world better. And this couldn’t feel more timely, asking whether we should just be passive receptors of news or participate in mass protest to take on the big power of governments and multinational corporations – “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” becoming the rallying call for change.

Bryan Cranston gives a layered and controlled central performance as Howard, managing the complex changes in pitch and purpose that affect the character as the story unfolds. Cranston is convincing throughout, first bringing a gravitas and confidence to Howard’s position as a well-respected anchor man before introducing a touch of betrayal, being pushed out after years of working for the network. The ensuing drama resulting from his threat to commit suicide on air is well managed by Cranston who builds a believable sense of mania and collapse that eventually reaches a plateau of calm certainty. Frequently accused of making a fool of himself by colleagues in the industry, Cranston’s Howard is always sure of what he’s saying, and, importantly, shows how the mythical audience would be captivated by his prophet-like charisma.

In a strong supporting role, Michelle Dockery returns to the stage as ambitious TV executive Diana who sees an opportunity to exploit Howard’s mental state to manipulate the ratings and turn his ailing news show into a different kind of hit. As calmly composed as she is emotionally ruthless, Dockery gives Diana a sense of certainty about herself, convinced her view is the right one with an enthusiasm for it that brings others round to her way of thinking. We note that Diana’s personal life is conducted with the efficiency she brings to television producing, and, while she is entirely driven by work, the coldness of her business-like approach starts to become quite merciless as the show concludes.

There are strong supporting performances for Tunji Kasim as network man Frank Hackett, snapping at the heels of the older generation with his plan to reorganise the entire company, bringing the news division under the control of regular programming. Like Diana, Hackett works to consolidate his power throughout the show, but Kasim gives him an edge of uncertainty, fearful of using Howard’s instability in case it rebounds on his precious network.

Douglas Henshall brings depth to the pivotal role of Max Schumacher, head of news and Howard’s best friend, who also faces potential redundancy along with his anchor man and feels overwhelmed by the ambition of his younger colleagues. As his personal life implodes, Henshall’s Max tries to stand by his old friend but is swallowed-up by the monster they unleash, a reminder of normalcy amidst it all. Ian Drysdale as the Director of the network is calm and unruffled as the figurehead sitting above the trivialities below him. Given an almost God-like appearance, Drysdale serenely delivers one of the most chilling speeches about the fiction of nationality, and how multinational corporations really control the mind.

Running for two hours without an interval, van Hove’s direction ensures scenes follow swiftly, utilising the full stage while using engaging technological interventions to add to the audience’s view of events, and reinforce Network’s origins. With events moving so quickly and no prior knowledge of the structure of American television, it’s not always possible to grasp the relationship between the various layers of management or the technical discussions of ratings and market share, but you do get the gist. There are also a couple of places where Howard’s character seems to inexplicably transform between scenes – at one point a virtual wreck wandering into the studio in his dressing gown and ranting, but when we next see him he’s back in an expensive suit speaking almost rationally – and those slight leaps aren’t fully clarified, but don’t really detract from an engaging evening.

van Hove’s productions are always fascinating with a vision that feels refreshing and challenging, again bringing intimacy to the vast Lyttleton stage, which in Jan Versweyveld’s striking set design houses a control booth, the dressing room, a large news studio and a restaurant filled with audience members (an addition that adds little to the production however). Utilising Tal Yarden’s video, and with portable cameras that even allow Dockery and Henshall to film a scene live out on the Southbank and walk back into the National and straight onto the stage, Network merges the production’s film roots with the live reaction shots of broadcast news to create a show that asks the audience to think about the boundary between reality and television, and how collective action might finally make the political changes we want to see.

Network is at the National Theatre until 24 March and is sold-out but tickets are available as part of the £20 Friday Rush scheme at 1pm each week. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1    


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