Tag Archives: John Simm

Macbeth – Chichester Festival Theatre

 

Macbeth - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

“Blood will have blood,” Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most atmospheric plays, charting the murderous tyranny of the Scottish warrior king who kills his predecessor for the crown and then seeks to secure his throne with further crimes. But in what is a relatively simple premise, productions often fail to fully reconcile the play’s competing drivers, the psychological complexity of the central character, the supernatural hand of fate that uses prophecy and magic to create an overarching inevitability, and the warlike state in which the uncontainable ambitions of men are given bloody reign. What productions of Macbeth fail to decide is just who or what is in control.

It has been a long time since a truly satisfactory Macbeth appeared in the West End while beyond at the capital’s fringe venues again and again the power of Shakespeare’s text is weakened by poor decision-making and an assumption that the story is far easier to stage than it really is – get it right and the play is a glorious howl of pain that will dazzle and electrify an audience with a complex world of violence and retribution they will never forget, get it wrong and the whole thing clangs like a discordant bell, as the National Theatre discovered with last year’s disastrous version starring Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff set in an inexplicable post-apocalyptic world of bin bag trees and concrete where only hierarchy had survived.

But suddenly the tide may be turning and good Macbeths are like buses, none for ages and then two come along at once. In late August, Antic Disposition brought their fantastic traverse production to Temple Church which smartly integrated the witches into the nineteenth-century household of the Macbeths as servants and messengers permanently shaping and controlling the action as Harry Anton’s wonderful Thane of Glamis crumbled under the weight of his murderous burden. And now, in Chichester, John Simm’s Macbeth directed by Paul Miller offers a more deterministic approach to the character that pulls away from the brute strength of the seasoned warrior to offer a cerebral and often sardonic take on Macbeth’s responsibility for his own actions while developing a partnership of malevolent and ambitious equals with co-star Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth.

Staged in the hexagonal Chichester Festival Theatre, the action takes place on a glass stage raised above a permanently exposed circle of rocky landscape. Designed by Simon Daw, the set is at once the blasted heath upon which Macbeth first learns of his destiny from the Weird Sisters, remaining visible throughout as a reminder of the point at which his life was irreversibly set upon this path, and it also represents the rugged landscape of Scotland above and for which the characters endlessly contend, the audience reminded of the bigger prize at stake. But there are other interpretations for Daw’s choices; the scarred earth devoid of grass could also suggest the permanent battlefield, a state of national warfare against the invading Norwegian army that becomes a civil war for the crown of Scotland – the battlefield also being the place in which Macbeth forged his character and earned his first plaudits from King Duncan, ones that inspire his ruthless quest for greater advancement.

This earthy pit also becomes a burial ground for several characters, if not all consistently, the glass stage parting to receive the bodies of Macduff’s son (a little awkwardly) and of Banquo, a nod to the shadow of inevitable death that hangs over the play, as well as the pile of bodies that Macbeth’s conscience accrues from the soldiers who die in the opening battle to the final murders that announce the play’s end game. But there is one more possibility that presents itself and Daw’s covered pit may also represent the way in which we fetishize and misuse history to suit our current political and social purpose.

Historians have long debated the practice of placing everyday objects from the past behind glass screens in museums, investing them with a reverence they never held during their period of use. Thus, the glass platform above the landscape may imply the ways in which Macbeth actively misapplies his own history and experience as a successful military leader to facilitate his role as King and dictator. There are strong notions of power and it corrupting influence which run throughout the production, showcasing how a lack of legitimacy needs to be circumvented, so the preservation of the blasted health / battlefield / earth of Scotland behind this glass screen speaks to Macbeth’s own misguided preservation of purpose that determines his behaviour and shores-up his despotic regime.

There is, for the most part, a fascinating intensity to Miller’s production, moodily lit by Mark Doubleday to create an eerie and intimidating world of dark deeds. The first half runs up until the death of Banquo and has a real momentum as events accelerate quickly to place Macbeth on the throne with plots and conversations taking place in shadowy corners and half-lit portions of the stage that well exude the gloomy oppression of the Macbeths’ castle. Particularly striking is the scene immediately after Duncan’s murder in which the blood-soaked figures of Macbeth and his wife are thrown into elemental relief by two well-position spotlights that cross the stage, simultaneously bathing them in light and darkness like other worldly beings. Just before the interval, Miller and the creative team create the feeling that everything is now in place, and Macbeth’s ascendancy is guaranteed.

If the second half of this production doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of the first it is by no means a reflection on the interpretation of the central characters whose interaction and stage presence is gripping throughout. For part two it is really a question of tone and two crucial decisions that interrupt the flow of the action. First, arguably, the interval comes at the wrong point and while the second half opens with a strong version of the Banquet scene, a longer piece of contextual exposition between two interchangeable soldiers drains the tension and could have been cut to make way for the fiery witches cauldron that follows. Bathed in red light and using Tim Reid’s psycho-horror video design (that looks better in the photos than it does on stage) this would have been a stronger opener, as well as a chance to mirror the focus on the witches at the start of Act One.

The second fateful decision is to play the tediously long scene between Malcolm and Macduff in full which switches the focus from the more engaging intrigues of Macbeth’s psychological decline to a sunny day somewhere else. Running for more than 10-minutes but feeling longer and weakly performed, it is a scene that adds very little to the play except for textural purists. Partly it is too focused on a character no one cares much about regardless of the production, but also creates an unnecessary “light” break in the carefully constructed tension of the preceding hours. Miller has worked hard, has earned our undivided attention and this scene pulls us out of the much more interesting perspective of Macbeth while we wait for key information to be delivered to Macduff. The airy birdsong and spring-like feel are a confusing distraction in a show that has otherwise focused on the ambition of one man and the horror his action perpetuates. Both these choices temporarily derail the action in what could have been a slightly tighter production.

Nonetheless, John Simm has seized the opportunity to make the character his own, using his own ability to play dark humour to bring a different angle to the performance. His Macbeth makes perfect psychological sense – a rare achievement in a difficult character to pitch – ensuring that his relationship with Duncan is less ingratiating than often seen and frustrated by his decision to make Malcolm his heir. Just as Christopher Ravenscroft’s softly spoken Duncan starts to announce his decision, Simm subtly shifts his weight as though about to step forward to claim his rightful place, only to be stunned to hear a lesser rival’s name. It is this outrageous dismissal that goads his Macbeth to consider murder, an arrogant certainty that carries him through the rest of the play.

Simm may not be a brutal thug who could tear a man to pieces, but his Macbeth is a dangerous figure – an understanding of quiet menace that Simm brings from his Pinter successes – so certain of his destiny, of a right to rule and his invincibility that after he is crowned his personality awkwardly changes towards old friend Banquo, a paranoid suspicion creeping into the performance that sours their affection for one another. Equally, Simm’s Macbeth refuses help from his co-conspirator, ejecting his wife to make gruesome decisions without further consultation. There is no question that this Macbeth knows his own mind and follows it relentlessly, full of his own agency that leaves him notably alone as the rebels surround the castle, a deluded, isolated figure on an empty stage clinging calmly to his certainty that he will prevail.

And Simm brings real clarity to Shakespeare’s verse, not only delivering the lines with a feel for everyday conversation but with a true understanding of every image and classical allusion. The soliloquies are delivered with confidence and while this is not a Macbeth whose mind is wrenched to pieces by his crime, Simm uses them like Hamlet to explore the conflicting emotions that chart Macbeth’s fluctuating journey through his own ability to order and control his thoughts, bringing small touches of gallows humour to draw out different dimensions in the role.

Dervla Kirwan as Lady Macbeth is every bit as good, developing an early partnership with Simm that suggests a marriage of true equality in the early part of the play as they both embark on their joint endeavour. Kirwan is a tower of strength to her husband, helping him to overcome his doubts when his resolve crumbles, confident that the opportunity is perfectly within their grasp if they stick to her plan. She’s not an evil Lady Macbeth but a very smart one, speaking in hushed tones as she urges her husband to the action she knows is right, while later assuming the magisterial dignity her husband lacks when she struggles to shield her guests from the effect of Macbeth’s visions.

Kirwan’s performance is the rock around which the rest of the production is anchored, stately and calm, the character’s determination which Kirwan evokes creates this balance in Lady Macbeth’s marriage that lasts until the point of Duncan’s death, making her husband’s decision to cast her aside so shocking. The sense of complete partnership between them broken by his decisive isolation, and as Shakespeare takes great leaps with the character off stage, Kirwan conveys Lady Macbeth’s own descent into madness with sympathy and credibility.

Among the surrounding cast, Stuart Laing’s Banquo impresses as Macbeth’s warrior comrade, divided by the witches prophesy that generates jealousy and fear between old friends, while Michael Balogun as Macduff conveys his own fury well, although the final confrontation between the antagonists is strangely short and underwhelming. Some of the secondary characters however are less clear, often more a distraction from the central storyline than helping to stoke the unfolding drama.

Is there a West End transfer in here -potentially. This two hour and 50-minute production does need a trim and the tone has to refocus more consistently on the driving intensity of Macbeth’s jagged purpose, but Dew’s multi-interpretative set-design has much to say about the various underlying themes of the play and has true purpose in the context of the action. It has been a long time since the West End saw a truly great Macbeth so perhaps this is a chance for Simm and Kirwan to buck the trend with impressive performances that offer a different perspective on their characters while creating a potency in their exchanges that is never less than compelling.

Macbeth is at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 26 October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Finding Harold: A Pinter at the Pinter Season Review

Pinter at the Pinter Season

Six months ago, the thought of a season dedicated to Pinter, let’s face it, sounded like a drag, a potential slog through 20 one-act plays and sketches full of weird scenarios, aggressive encounters and endless pauses. But as lovers of drama “this will be good for me” you may have thought, Pinter is beloved of actors and directors, an important voice in the landscape who like Brecht and Beckett we have to learn to appreciate – the equivalent of our theatrical fibre, you know it’s good for you but you don’t have to like it.

What has actually occurred in the last six months is nothing less than astonishing as Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season has transformed hearts and minds, showing us the genius and humanity of a multi-stranded writer whose plays remain as relevant and meaningful as they were in the 1960s. By finally letting the audience in on the secrets of Pinter’s success and making a case for his work in the mainstream, this is how Jamie Lloyd et al has taught us not just to like and understand Pinter, but to love him.

  • The Context

Prior to this game-changing season, there has been plenty of Pinter to see in the last few years with high calibre productions filled with star names. Lloyd himself directed two at the Trafalgar Studios – The Hothouse and The Homecoming with a fantastic cast that included Pinter-veteran John Simm in both alongside Ron Cook, Gary Kemp, Simon Russell Beale and Gemma Chan. A major revival of No Man’s Land toured the UK with legendary theatre knights Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, while 2018 began with an impressive production of The Birthday Party also at the Harold Pinter Theatre directed by Ian Rickson and starring Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan.

All of these productions were great, all weird, menacing, peculiar experiences that were entertainingly bizarre. They created a chink through which you could sit back and appreciate Pinter’s (then) niche appeal, his focus on unsettling tone and illusory perspectives rather than straightforward narrative and character development. Did we understand these plays? Maybe. Did we love them? Probably not. Using the same criteria for assessing last year’s disappointing Oscar Wilde season, let’s see how Jamie Lloyd changed our minds.

  • Play Selection is Crucial

Building an entire season around rarely seen short works and grouping them together in thematic collections was a stroke of genius. The advantage of this for an audience is the feeling of assortment, knowing that if one piece was less entertaining or meaningful then in 10-30 minutes the next play or sketch might be more appealing. The anthology approach offers plenty of variety in one night, making explicit connections between quite different types of work and  thereby reinforcing the central premise that our perspective on Pinter’s output has been unfairly narrowed by his most revived plays.

Pinter is, Lloyd has forcefully argued, an ever-relevant commentator whose writing incorporates the full spectrum of human experience, that it has a universality that beneath the strange structure and scenarios makes him a major and enduring figure in theatre history. And the timelessness of Pinter’s subject matter was infused through the seven thematic collections, beginning with a set of stories including Mountain Language, One for the Road and Ashes to Ashes that examined the totalitarian state, the shifting balance of power in society and the slow erosion of individual rights that leads to violence.

Playing in repertory, Lloyd changed pitch completely in Pinter Two with the oft-combined The Lover and The Collection that examined the politics of relationships, of fantasy role-play and unconventionality. Pinter Three and Four also applied contrasting themes, the latter using Moonlight and Night School to think about external intrusion into the domestic sphere and the complexities of family life, while placing these alongside exquisite productions looking at love and absence – Landscape and A Kind of Alaska – making us see Pinter’s ability to write deep emotion for the first time. Pinter Three was a powerful experience amplified by Lee Evans heartbreaking Monologue which remains one of the seasons most memorable events, one that felt utterly transformative in shifting our perspective on Pinter.

The fifth collection continued to focus on isolation and physical separation finding poignancy beneath the comic in Victoria Station and particularly Family Voices, an exchange of letters between mother and son. This was contrasted with the class-based falsity of pre-selected communities in Pinter Six’s Party Time and Celebration, before concluding with A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter showcasing the absurdity of language and the rhythm of Pinter’s dialogue. The breadth of Pinter’s work has been gratifying to see, evolving throughout the season and carefully curated to reveal a writer whose multifaceted output elicited deeper meaning the more of it we saw.

  • Vary the Presentation

It has been said many times during the series, but Jamie Lloyd has the most finely calibrated understanding of Pinter of any modern director and this gave his team the confidence to break free of the original period settings and to deliver each anthology with a slightly different, but undeniably modern, approach that underscored the generality of Pinter’s themes. Where Dominic Dromgoole’s Wilde season stuck to its rigid historical focus (much to its detriment), Lloyd and season designer Soutra Gilmour had a clear, stylised vision for each production, united by a series of common factors including the large rotating cube in various states of deconstruction, and the visible “backstage” detritus that lent artificiality at the right moments.

The effect created layers of meaning within the design that united individual collections under their thematic banner whilst also ensuring that they were visibly part of the overall vision for the season. Through careful management of visual clues, Jon Clark’s lighting design and George Dennis’s sound and music choices, every time the curtain went up the audience undoubtedly knew they were at a Pinter at the Pinter performance.

It all began with a clear statement of intent, the lurking fear and intensity of Pinter One became a core feature of the stark, grey and intimidating design, with plenty of shadows creating dark corners. This is not the way Pinter’s work had been visualised before, and it set the standard for no ordinary season to come. And so it proved to be, every production offered a different approach, from the heightened reality and colour saturation of 60s sex comedy The Lover right through to the creepy radio booth of a A Slight Ache, each design slightly separate from those that had come before while beautifully serving the themes and content of the work.

The most visually exciting and directorially daring, was Pinter Six in which Lloyd employed very little movement and instead organised his actors in a line during Party Time, each stepping forward to deliver their scenes. The purposefully static nature of these decisions showed a season full of confidence, revelling in an intensity amplified by Gilmour’s monochrome design. As a now dedicated Pinter audience, we were pushed to focus on the text more completely as the season unfolded, a decision that allowed us to get the most from radio play A Slight Ache and Betrayal which followed.

  • Venue and Casting

Holding a Harold Pinter season at the Harold Pinter Theatre is an obvious choice, but the auditorium itself, aside from a series of slim pillars on every level, offers reasonable views from all but the most extreme seats in the Royal Circle and Balcony. Wherever you sit, the audience can feel fairly close to the action and if you booked early enough, you could see the whole season for £15 per show with several marginally restricted view seats in the Dress Circle – a sensible pricing decision for what 8-months ago seemed like an enormous risk. While Betrayal prices are now notably higher, previous season attendees had access to pre-sale tickets for as little as £25, while a weekly Rush scheme was introduced for key workers and those in receipt of social security benefit to see the show for £15, all of which have resulted in what has felt like a relatively diverse audience across the entire run.

Casting, of course, has been one of Pinter at the Pinter’s most notable features and, like the Kenneth Branagh Season in 2016, there has been a clear strategy to align established theatre veterans, those who personally knew Pinter and, most importantly, the industry’s rising stars – reiterating the season’s role in ensuring Pinter’s future survival. Every casting announcement brought fresh excitement with well-known performers including David Suchet, Anthony Sher, Phil Davis, Tamsin Grieg, Celia Imrie and Tracy-Ann Oberman across the run. Rupert Graves was particularly excellent in Pinter Five as a bemused taxi driver before joining with Jane Horrocks for the memorable Family Voices. John Simm excelled as ever in Pinter Six while Janie Dee and Brid Brennan were hilarious as nosey aunts in Night School.

Among the creative team, Lloyd successfully shared the directing honours with Patrick Marber, Lia Williams, and particularly Ed Stamboullian, but it was just as delightful to see substantial roles given to younger actors. Hayley Squires, Papa Essiedu, Gemma Whelan and Kate O’Flynn are well established if arguably not quite household names yet, but each firmly grasped the opportunity that the season offered to deliver excellent performances. And equally we saw brilliant work from actors all but fresh from drama school including Abraham Popoola as waiter with literary pretensions in Celebration, Jessica Barden as the mysterious lodger in Night School, and most impressively from Luke Thallon (soon to be seen alongside Andrew Scott in Present Laughter at the Old Vic) who brought Pinter’s radio play Family Voices so vividly to life in another of those memorable moments that will linger long after the season concludes. Of course, the ever-savvy Lloyd saved his trump cards for the season finale.

  • A Grand Finale

If there has been one key feature of the Pinter at the Pinter season it has been never to do things by halves, so with that in mind, why have one season finale when you can have two! The combined excitement of seeing Martin Freeman and, Pinter collaborator, Danny Dyer on stage in The Dumb Waiter promised to be quite an experience when it was announced last summer when Pinter Seven was intended to conclude the series in February. It may have raised eyebrows at the time, but populist casting would drive new audiences into the theatre. In that time, Dyer has transformed himself into a national treasure, and, with a theatre CV that is predominantly West End or equivalent, it proved to be an insightful evening as the central pair delivered a performance that showcased the layers of comic potential in the text to a house packed full of newly won Pinter fans.

Then came Betrayal. Announced only last November when the season was well underway, Pinter’s beautiful 90-minute play about adultery and friendship became the new season finale. The casting of Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox ensured that Pinter at the Pinter would end with one of the year’s most anticipated productions. Fully consistent with the seven insightful anthologies that have come before and visually aligned with the stark simplicity of Pinter One, directed with the precision and choreographical control that Lloyd displayed in Pinter Six, and performed with the intensity and emotional force of Pinter Three, Betrayal is an extraordinary piece of theatre, moving, complex and hugely resonant, the cumulative effect of Pinter’s work over the last 6 months ensuring you’ll never forget this astonishing finale.

  • A Point of View

In just six months, Jamie Lloyd’s creative team and ever-changing company of actors has utterly transformed our perspective on Harold Pinter. Where once we went leaden-footed for a night of inexplicable menace, suddenly we were skipping to our seats eager to be wowed by each new perspective on his plays. The range and value of Pinter’s writing, his inestimable effect on the theatrical landscape and the importance of his commentary feels more relevant, timeless and incontrovertible than it ever has.

The Pinter at the Pinter season set out to change our minds, to make us see, understand and really feel the many kinds of writer Pinter was. Anyone planning a production now will (and should) be intimidated by the wonderful clarity this season has brought us, the creative vision so brilliantly and purposefully delivered by all involved and filled with memorable experiences. We are genuinely sad that it’s over. The season has deservedly received huge acclaim, and plenty of applause, but Jamie Lloyd this figurative ovation is just for you for because in this exceptional season of work, you truly taught us all to love Pinter.

The Pinter at the Pinter Season concludes with Betrayal, now running until 8 June, with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Pinter Six: Party Time/Celebration – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter at the Pinter Six

As the annual party season draws to a close we are all exhausted from a least a month of Christmas drinks, official office parties and socialising with everyone we’ve ever met before the symbolic chasm beyond the 25 December. One last hurrah on New Year’s Eve to see out a year no one particular wants to remember will be replaced with diets, detoxes and a month at home to recover from the financial strain of the festive period. What better time then to consider all the things we really hate about forced social gatherings – the one-upmanship, the sniping couples and the self-congratulation all concealed under a thin veneer of social expectation and small-talk.

The penultimate Pinter at the Pinter collection is another superbly insightful double bill uniting Party Time from 1991 with Celebration from 2000. This is Pinter as a social commentator subtly examining the slightly falsified nature of the party set-up, suggesting much about the complex nature of human interaction and revealing character traits through conversations full of class, gender and political meanings. Presented to a now socially-jaded late December / early January audience these are two parties you’ll be glad to observe from the safety of your theatre seat.

Back at the helm after temporarily handing-over the directorial reins, you know instinctively that this is a Jamie Lloyd production as soon as the curtain rises. Gone are the gentler themes about love and loss, and instead we return to contrasting shades of darkness and light. Where Soutra Gilmour’s revolving cube has been used to give previous collections movement and verve, here both plays have a deliberate static quality, similarly presented front-on with the actors placed in a row facing the audience. How Lloyd uses this to create two dynamic gatherings that emphasise Pinter’s focus on the dangerous nonsense of social climbing is fascinating.

Opening with Party Time Lloyd and Gilmour create a vision more akin to a funeral than a twinkly upper middle-class get-together, but for good reason. Pinter’s story is all about the ways in which the accumulation of wealth depends on the exploitation of those in the lower social order and how vulgar the conversations about holidays and tennis clubs, a heartless display of status really are, suggesting an emptiness at the heart of these interactions. Here, while peacocking, the characters reveal a ruthless approach to protecting their own privilege and a refusal to see beyond the limits of their comfortable existence, a purposeful blindness about how their lifestyle is sustained.

The attention to detail here is very meaningful, and Gilmour’s party venue is a black room, with black chairs, with a set of double black doors at the rear centre through which the external world occasionally tries to break through. She dresses each character in a carefully chosen black outfit and shoes while even providing quite specific brunette wigs to a number of the actors to create a soulless and bleak community governed by a particular set of rules about conformity, which links nicely to the political themes and faceless governing elite of Pinter One.

Lloyd carefully places his actors in particular spots on the stage, the women seated on the outer edge to reinforce the male-dominated secret society idea that comes through strongly from the script, an ominous bunch ‘taking care’ of events beyond this room – a hint of revolution in which police cordons and traffic checks delay arrivals at the party –  and rapidly shutting down any reference to the events beyond. For the men of this elite set knowledge is power and the emphasis is squarely on ‘need to know’, so information is presented to the other characters and the viewer only where it serves the progress of the story, frequently without further context, for example when Dusty is abruptly told she cannot mention her missing brother.

To reiterate this idea of party and society as a form of constructed artifice, full of tacit rules and expectations, Lloyd shies away from a more traditional staging with conversations happening around the stage and instead seats all the actors in a single line, with the relevant combinations stepping forward to deliver their scenes before resuming their place in the frozen line-up. The effect of this is quite extraordinary, showing the multiple strands of conversation occurring in this room between semi-strangers, while cutting sharply between pockets of information to draw out their strange lack of reality. We’ve seen this in several of the earlier Pinter collections, the idea that this world exists slightly out of time with everything beyond the black doors, and, for some time, each interaction here also appears to be separated from the others, sets of lives happening in parallel in the same room but in their own vacuum.

The deconstructed staginess that Lloyd brings is cleverly utilised to underscore Pinter’s views on this type of party and its people supported by another fantastic ensemble cast. John Simm has such an natural feel for Pinter’s rhythm and after enjoyably dark performances in The Hothouse and The Homecoming, both for Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios, here his angry banker Terry is full of rage in which Simm draws out the brutality of the man who verbally berates his wife and hints at a joy in physical violence beyond this room while talking about his favourite health club.

Simm is supported by Eleanor Matsuura as Dusty, Terry’s wife who married-up and struggles to cast-off the thoughts of her own family and class while chafing under Terry’s rule, Phil Davis as party host Gavin inducted into this particular social circle through his appreciation of the health club, Celia Imrie as Dame Melissa whose scathing comments on the nearby town are so revelatory for the audience, Ron Cook and Katherine Kingsley as couple Douglas and Liz whose only connection seems to be their children, and the wonderful Tracy-Ann Oberman as widow Charlotte reunited with Gary Kemp’s Fred – all of them reasonably oblivious to anything but their own immediate circumstances.

Pinter uses the 35-minute Party Time to comment on the unsatisfactory nature of marriage and the rapid descent into indifference or outright disdain. These themes are even more prevalent in Celebration, essentially a sex-comedy set in a restaurant during a wedding anniversary dinner as two sets of tables (a foursome and a double) explore past lovers, jealousy and the failure of their current relationships. As with Party Time the tone suggests something amiss, but Pinter, in his final play, draws out the crass nature of his characters more overtly as the self-congratulation gives way to more dubious moral undercurrents.

Lloyd stages this 40-minute play almost as the inverse of the earlier production with a visual palette that confines black to the back of the stage and instead uses gold, white and silver to create a gaudy nouveau riche world of shiny fabrics and visible wealth – and note Gilmour replaces the brunette wigs with blonde for most of the women and their natural silver of the men. Seated at a banquet-style table facing the audience, couples Lambert and Julie are celebrating their anniversary separated by fellow twosome Matt and Prue who have joined them for the evening. At either end of the table at right angles to the audience, Russell and Suki form an entirely separate conversation, and Lloyd controls the traffic between the initially separate scenarios with lighting changes, freeze frame techniques and a subtle musical flurry.

This set-up allows Lloyd to place a physical distance between the sparring couples (with the exception of the relatively happy Matt and Prue who sit side-by-side) that emphasises the considerable emotional separation they are experiencing. At several points Ron Cook’s dislikeable Lambert either pretends not to know his wife or acts with notable disrespect towards her including mention of earlier sexual conquests. There is an evident vulgarity in the way Cook’s Lambert carries himself, flaunts his wealth and holds court at what should be a celebratory dinner, clearly indicating a self-made man who constantly betrays his more-lowly origins.

These notions filter through the group and while both Oberman’s Julie and Imrie’s Prue are expensively dressed, Gilmour’s choice of shiny ruched fabrics and piles of elaborately coiffured hair equally suggest money without taste, they drip with expense but their obvious flashiness implying, deep-down, a discomfort or surprise at their sudden fortune that they have been unable to cultivate. While the characters in Party Time oozed a classical elegance and comfortable entitlement that stifles any real feeling, here this brash group open-up their thoughts and feelings as easily as their wallets.

The theme of sexual jealousy comes from the other table as Kingsley’s Suki dines with partner Russell played by Simm. Here we discover a path for young women from secretary to boss’s wife behind the filing cabinets of the offices in which Suki once worked. As the two stories collide, Pinter comments on marriage, attraction and our inability to fully escape our own past – especially, for women, the stain of former lovers – as the characters endure an uncomfortably forced period of social interaction into which Lloyd allows only minimal movement, reflecting the confinement of the life they have built for themselves. All of this is interspersed with more wordly musings from the waiting staff (Abraham Popoola and Matsuura) and Kemp’s restaurant manager who subvert social expectations to some degree; the people with money have neither education nor class, while the people without have both.

Together, the one Act plays that comprise Pinter Six are a condemnation of the falsity of politeness and the extent to which excessive amounts of money allow groups to mask terrible and immoral behaviours. These brilliantly staged pieces are the shortest of the set to date and contain the least motion from the actors, yet the purpose of Lloyd’s still and contained approach is extremely well and atmospherically realised by a top-notch cast who bring such clarity to Pinter’s social commentary. The Pinter at the Pinter season is now alas on the home straight and as we embrace the clean-living principles that come with each New Year, keep a little in reserve because you’ll be want to accept an invitation to this wonderful Pinter party.

Pinter Six is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Homecoming – Trafalgar Studios

Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company, Trafalgar Studios

Home sweet home’, ‘home is where the heart is’, ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. Home is a place we all like to be; on a cold winter’s day we can’t wait to get in or if we’re abroad for a protracted period of time we long to return. It’s a place of solace, safety, often of family and respite, territorially ours, come what may. In The Homecoming now revived by Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios, Pinter plays with these notions of home and family showing us that our origins can be as poisonous as they are restorative, a place where you return not just to the home you once knew but also to yourself and the person you’ve been trying to escape from.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Homecoming so this production celebrates Pinter’s acclaimed play with a star-studded interpretation. And having started the year with the deliciously dark The Ruling Class – with a serenely madcap performance from James McAvoy – Jamie Lloyd productions neatly book-end my theatrical year. But Pinter and I have never really gotten along; I enjoyed Betrayal but couldn’t quite get to grips with No Man’s Land, there’s something about the rhythm of Pinter, with its surreal plot twists and grubby interplay, which just didn’t quite fit with me. Never one to give up entirely, I’m glad I gave this a go – I may not be exactly converted but this is a chilling, sinister and intense production that is a fine birthday tribute to a landmark play.

Teddy returns to his London home with his wife Ruth. Married for 6 years but living in America as a university lecturer, Teddy’s family has never met his wife or even knows of her existence until one night when everyone has gone to bed they turn up unannounced on the doorstep for a flying visit. But this is no ordinary family – Max the patriarch still attempting to rule his home with an iron fist, flits between missing his long-dead wife and despising her; Lenny the middle son is a man of the world, a wheeler dealer with less than savoury connections; Joey is the youngest, a boxer who Max thinks will make it big, and Sam (Max’s brother) is the only one with a defined job as a well-respected and much requested chauffeur. The entrance of Ruth into this utterly male world both unpicks the existing dynamics and fills a void over the course of two days. But Teddy’s neat and elegant wife isn’t all she seems, Ruth has come home too.

As with all of Soutra Gilmore’s work the first thing you’ll notice about this play is the design – with the houselights up it’s a black, sparse but elegant looking 60s home with sideboard and chair. In the centre is the throne, Max’s armchair which denotes his status in the house – 2 seats in the whole room. It all looks stylishly 60s, containing the characters in a red-framed room that recedes back to the pivotal front door. But then the stage lights come on and suddenly it looks much grubbier, well used and soiled – a reflection of the family morality within. It’s a very unsettling male world that contrasts brilliantly with Ruth and Teddy’s American preppy style, lit in crucial moments in blood red or by two naked light bulbs suspended at front and rear like a boxing ring.

It’s a small cast and Pinter gives each a chance to shine. Best among them is Ron Cook as Max (also a veteran of The Ruling Class earlier this year) the curmudgeonly father of the house who is both proud of and appears to detest his sons. An old school working-class man, butcher by trade, who constantly reminisces about the old days while laying down the law to his household. Cook’s performance is spot on, unsympathetic and unwilling. Matching him is John Simm as Lennie giving the creepiest performance of the show. By coincidence the programme notes tell us that when The Homecoming was released, audiences could have alternatively seen Turgenev’s A Month in the Country and Simm has just finished a superb run in that self-same play at the National this summer. Also a veteran of Lloyd productions (The Hothouse), Simm is magnificent here as the outwardly friendly but deadly middle brother. With an accent that verges on a working class Kenneth Williams at his most snide, Simm is a sinister figure often appearing unexpectedly and using a chatty manner to imply considerable threat – creepy and brilliant.

Given that the world Pinter creates here is one that existed alongside the Krays, appropriately Gary Kemp has been cast, successfully against type, as the philosophical brother Teddy and he brings a softness and detachment to the role which seems right for Teddy’s separateness from his family.  Also offering a surprising turn is Keith Allen as Uncle Sam, who takes considerable pride in his legitimate job, often absenting himself from family quarrels, especially when Max and Lennie butt heads. Allen brings a restrained camp to his performance of Sam, who seems to perform most of the domestic chores, which gives the audience plenty to consider in this very male world.                                                           

The role of Ruth, then, is a tricky one as the only woman to have entered this home since the death of Max’s wife. Gemma Chan pitches her really well, initially fearful and detached implying the very different life she and Teddy have led in their middle-class American home, but as the play progresses she begins to stand up to them and ultimately it seems to dominate their thoughts and plans. The hints at Ruth’s past come across well in a knowing performance from Chan, and you’re left with the notion that whatever the family has cooked up, she’s been the one in control all along.

While I can’t say that I’ve come any closer to loving Pinter, the production values made this a fascinating and very worthwhile trip to the theatre – especially the design and direction that is bursting with meaning and the almost gleeful darkness of the performances with Simm in particular seeming to relish his character’s dangerous geniality. So wherever you end up and whoever you think you become, perhaps you can’t ever escape who you really are, eventually all of us have to come home.

The Homecoming is at the Trafalgar Studios until 13 February. Tickets start at £29.50 but Trafalgar Studios runs as £15 Monday initiative on the 2nd – so on 2nd December they will release tickets at £15 for all Mondays in December. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Three Days in the Country – National Theatre

It’s rare to see a Russian drama that feels as light and fresh as this one, so used as we are to claustrophobic sets and a sense of pointless oppression. Frequently in such plays, the characters sit around for several hours talking about ploughing or some equally riveting subject while not confessing how they all really feel about each other. For all the burning passions that are supposed to exist under the surface, nothing much actually happens and everyone goes home again more or less in the exact same position as they arrived. But actors enjoy the intellectual challenge so Chekhov in particular remains a perennial favourite on the London stage, but I’d long come to the conclusion that perhaps Russian drama is not for me.

Then, the National Theatre came along with this glorious adaptation of Turgenev’s Three Days in the Country, a figurative lightning strike that revealed to me what everyone else has been seeing under the corn threshing chat all these years, and perhaps more importantly proves that the National Theatre really is back in business. Now I’ve certainly given the NT a very hard time in the last couple of years, signifying the death throes of the previous director’s reign and the warming up of the Rufus Norris era (not that changing management is any excuse for over a year of shoddy work).  But suddenly the clouds have parted and the sun is shining on the Southbank once again. This year I’ve seen 5 NT production, 3 of which were genuinely excellent (Man and Superman, The Beaux’ Stratagem and this one), 1 was decent (Rules for Living) and 1 was dreadful (A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire) which is a pretty impressive hit rate in just 6 months.

Patrick Marber, most famously the writer of Closer, has adapted and directed this new version of Turgenev’s novel A Month in the Country, shortening the action to a weekend, stripping out a lot of superfluous stuff and stuffing it full of much needed laughs. As the curtain rises to reveal a smattering of furniture and Perspex walls the enormous Lyttelton stage looks, well enormous, and you wonder how they will ever create the stifling tension of a group of people holed up together with raging emotions. This is going to drown them I thought, but I couldn’t have been more wrong; without the clutter you get to focus entirely on the people, allowing the actors to create buckets of tension and drama. The decision to strip back classic texts and present them in more powerful minimalist staging is all the rage, and what Ivo Van Hove has done for Arthur Miller, here Patrick Marber has done for Turgenev, and it is a huge success.

The story takes place in the sumptuous country home of Natalya (Amanda Drew), a confident and intimidating landowner who is bored with her husband. During this weekend an older neighbour Bolshintsov (Nigel Betts) has coerced the local doctor (Mark Gatiss) to introduce him to the family so he may propose to Vera (Lily Sacofsky) the family ward. But Vera is in love with the handsome young tutor Belyaev (Royce Pierrson) who himself is attracted to Natalya, as well as her maid Katya (Cherrelle Skeete). Meanwhile the doctor has designs on Lizaveta a companion (Debra Gillett) while Rakitin (John Simm) a long-term friend of the family has nursed a love for Natalya for twenty years. The various permutations of these unrequited love stories are played out with plenty of confusion between love and lust, misunderstandings and a houseful of broken hearts by the end.

Bestriding it all are three outstanding performances from Drew, Gatiss and Simm who offer different but affecting insights into their characters. Drew’s Natalya is comfortable in her world as mistress of a large estate – and again the openness of the staging really emphasises the size of the house and land – while happily accepting the devoted attentions of the men around her, but like many Russian heroines suppressing a wilder nature. As the story evolves Drew is particularly impressive in subtly portraying her jealousy of Vera even when encouraging her into the arms of the man she wants for herself. And later in the play when she finally succumbs to her own passions Drew shows how its release completely breaks Natalya forcing her to give way to public emotion, something she could never have done as the play began.

Equally affecting is John Simm’s performance as the ardent long-term suitor without the slightest hope of victory. This Rakitin is a rational and intelligent man willing to accept a close friendship with Natalya rather than nothing at all, and Simm creates a man who it likeable and sympathetic. Each of the three central roles have their moment to shine and Simm’s comes in the Second Act where he too succumbs to 20 years of pain as he continues to counsel Natalya about her love for another man while clinging to a stolen moment between them years before, finally accepting it will never be repeated.

Gatiss, always a great character actor, excels here as Shpigelsky the local quack desperate for social advancement. His association with the ‘big house’ is reinforced by a comical attempt to woo the perplexed Lizaveta by listing his faults and expectations. In a scene not dissimilar to Mr Darcy telling Elizabeth Bennett that he’ll have her despite her inferiority, Gatiss’s doctor tries to strike a bargain with the companion while hilariously dealing with a bad back brought on my being on one knee. He is equally amusing in an earlier scene having drunk too much at dinner, late-night gossiping with the other guests. One of Gatiss’s greatest gifts as a comic actor is to suddenly show the pain beneath the surface which is used so poignantly here, giving the doctor’s character greater depth and winning the audience’s compassion.

It is a great cast who give a convincing sense of a busy country manor, although the character of the tutor that everyone is in love with seems a little flat, so it’s hard to see what all the ladies are so excited about. Similarly Natalya’s husband Arkady is currently an interesting sketch, and performed well by John Light, but seems quite under-used and it would be useful to learn a little more about their marriage to explain her frustrations.  Nonetheless it is a wonderful couple of hours reinforced by Irene Bohan’s costumes and particularly Mark Thompson’s unusual but intriguing stage design which again feels so fresh. You may initially be confused by the hovering red door in Act One which comes to earth after the interval, but its physical purpose eventually makes sense as well as its role as a symbol of everyone’s passions which are eventually released.

Three Days in the Country is probably the best Russian play that I have seen, given real verve by Marber’s loose adaptation. If you like your Turgenev traditional and suffocating then this may be a bit radical, but it was a joy to see something that felt so light yet still created the right level of emotional drama. More than anything, the last few months have completely restored my faith in the National Theatre as a place for interesting and smart adaptations of classic plays. Whether the same can be said of any new writing remains to be seen, but with greater availability of lower priced tickets and an interesting new season from the autumn there is a lot to be excited about. The National is back in business indeed.

Three Days in the Country is at the National Theatre until 21 October. Tickets start at £15 and better seats are available at £20 from 1pm on Friday afternoons as part of the theatre’s Friday Rush initiative.


%d bloggers like this: