Tag Archives: Juliet Stevenson

Little Wars – Stream Theatre

Little Wars - Stream Theatre

Besides looking in on itself, one of theatre’s other favourite preoccupations is imagining conversations between the great men and women of history; one way of doing this is to elaborate on meetings that could feasibly have taken place such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s scientific debate in Copenhagen, J. T. Rogers superb political meeting drama Oslo or the electrifying evening of power struggles, civil rights, fame and masculine sparring that took place in Kemp Power’s One Night In Miami (recently and brilliantly filmed by Regina King) pitting Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Muhammed Ali and Jim Brown together at a pivotal moment in the 1960s. Other plays take a more interpretive approach, giving their famous protagonists an entirely fictionalised scenario in which to explore their personality, style and legacy of which Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland is a most recent example, giving Patricia Highsmith’s own life the Highsmith treatment. These plays are designed to celebrate their illustrious characters but also to humanise them, looking beyond literary, political and creative reputations for the contextualised human beneath.

Late last year, Stream Theatre staged a rehearsed reading of a 2016 play in which five well-known playwrights and authors convened across the Channel for a dinner party on the eve of the Fall of France in 1940. What is remarkable about Little Wars is that every person in attendance was female, from the housekeeper Bernadette to the mysteriously ordinary psychiatrist introduced as Mary to a gaggle of famous faces including host Gertrude Stein and guests Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie. Returning to Stream Theatre for two weeks of encore performances, Stephen Carl McCasland’s piece is most decidedly not a “women’s play” but an exploration of writers, their egos and the passivity of inaction.

Set at a decisive moment in the Second World War, aside from their literary credentials, it is notable that almost all of McCasland’s characters are Jewish, fearing the imminent arrival of the German army and responding in quite different ways to the rumours of mass extermination. That most of the characters are also American adds a different shape to the narrative of Little Wars as it explores the feeling of disassociation that some of these writers feel towards the war and its impact on others with whom they should share some affinity. That relationship with America is, for some present, equally problematic with several of the faultlines in this play depending on whether the individual plans to escape the war (and thereby the threat of Nazi persecution) by just going home and those who have forsworn their allegiance to the country of their birth and instead fervently proclaim kinship with their adopted nation.

What McCasland does so cleverly is to weave these debates into a much wider and more fluid conversation designed to get the measure of each person present while offering a series of character journeys that (largely) prevent the play from becoming too stagnant. Among such an illustrious groups of writers – a recognition they are well aware of – naturally, there is competition and over-familiarity which gives early parts of Little Wars a waspishness as the guests trade insults and personal critiques. Strength of character is hardly lacking as these titans of literature snarl and swipe, but a cohesive feeling builds between them as they debate their work, their lives and the developing pace of the war.

Remarkably, this dialogue feels like the conversation that (too often) would only have been given to men in a play, touching as it does on the big issues of the day and the views that each of the guests has independently formed, can astutely argue and defend. And while much later in the story there are sensitive discussions around the female experiences of rape, abortion and miscarriage that emerge from their own lives, for the most part McCasland gives his characters the same freedoms, intellectual rigour and discursive style as men so often receive in plays of this nature. No one present is a woman writer, they are just writers and had McCasland convened US-UK male contemporaries like Hemingway, Hammett, Rattigan and McCullers for an equivalent dinner, their conversation would have been largely the same – they drink, they compete and reveal a complex array of strengths, weaknesses, quirks and passions. It is refreshing to see an all female discussion reflect the reality of women’s varied and informed conversation.

What begins as a literary soiree perhaps designed to overawe the audience with the prestige of its authors arriving slowly, using their anticipated entrance to stoke and shape the play’s drive in the early scenes, becomes an exploration of morality and its gradations as each character is asked to reckon with the “what would you do” dilemma in response to the saving of Jewish lives in France and Germany as McCasland asks where the writer ends and the empathetic human begins. Increasingly, as this tale plays out, the high-minded swipes and barbs aimed at each other’s published works, themes and personalities by necessity give way to the more practical considerations represented by the two non-famous members of the group.

McCasland uses these two characters as devices to expose the gulf between the somewhat sanitised world of the American expat creatives living among their own set, steeped in the Albee-like rituals of domestic competition and one-upmanship, and the intrusive reality of Nazi government with its impending military occupation – worlds that move far closer together during the course of the play catalysed by the experience of Mary and Bernadette in which McCasland manages the taut scenario, circular nature of the interactions and escalating drama with skill.

Staged as a rehearsed reading in video boxes (though with no visible scripts), Little Wars is densely packed with activities and shifting conversations driven by the identity of the mysterious Mary – and listen out for a crucial slip when Gertrude Stein subtly uses a different christian name for her guest. It is a very talky play and – as with the recent film adaptation of One Night in Miami – some may find its intensely conversational style is weakened by the static nature of the streaming format, losing the movement that would vary the pace and intensity in a theatre. In places the drama is undercut as characters are prevented from flouncing out in a fury and are unable to physically impose on another’s personal space as a territorial move. Instead, their video gently fades out when their character exits.

Nonetheless, just listening to these people talk becomes engrossing, largely overcoming the boundaries of the platform and socially distant approach, allowing the viewer to envisage how Little Wars might be staged. The unused dining table, plenty of comfortable chairs, sofas and bookshelves around which the group can conduct their private and collective interactions, its boundaries demarcating a barrier with the outside world, a bubble of privilege and protection in which these writers have lived for too long and is about to be unceremoniously burst.

With an excellent cast, the performance quality is very high as these famous faces spring to life, almost all of whom feel like real people with a past and future beyond the confines of this one night, the play and, crucially, their own fame as a writer with which audience expectation will be laden. Best among them is Linda Bassett as Stein who balances her devoted belief in France’s ability to withstand the German army with her status as the grande dame of this literary salon. The liberty Stein feels in Europe living openly with Alice Toklas and the various ways in which she is cast as an outsider in this age and location – American, Jew, lesbian and woman – are starkly conveyed in Bassett’s performance, adopting a fierce exterior shell that protects a softer heart and sensitivity beneath that Bassett unveils during the course of the play.

Her chief antagonist is Juliet Stevenson’s playwright Lillian Hellman (consistently referred to as Lily-Ann by Stein) whose bruising and even brash personality initially offers little sympathy. And Hellman’s frankness is one of Little Wars most enjoyable aspects not only creating plenty of confrontational opportunities that stoke the rivalries between the writers but also asking some of the play’s most troubling questions about the extent of an individual’s ability to make a difference or even care for strangers. Stevenson gives Hellman a grounded reality that never hides or shies away from the character’s arrogance and sense of entitlement but there are moments when someone hits a nerve that show a depth of feeling beneath the seemingly callous exterior.

Debbie Chazen’s Dorothy Parker is also one of the more exuberant attendees whose comfort with her own life and experience is clearly conveyed. A hard drinker with a scathing tongue and many lovers, this version of Parker is more personable than some of her fellow guests, while later in the play her more emotional backstory is expanded, exploring the difficult journey through the consequences of those relationships and one in particular that makes sense of her alcoholism and determination to live for herself.

There are far quieter performances from Catherine Russell as Tolkas the writer-to-be whose calm, unassuming presence provides a social glue that brings the conflicting personalities together. Almost happy to live in the shadow of Stein, their relationship is clearly full of affection and Russell navigates that role of facilitator and chief support well. Sarah Solemani’s gives the mysterious Mary a gentle tone, respectful of the successful women around her but increasingly firm in her own views as the discussion turns. In playing a character with secrets to reveal Solemani makes Mary modest about her own history but is nonetheless a charismatic presence on screen hinting to the audience of her greater role in the story ahead, while Natasha Karp as housekeeper Bernadette is absent for long periods but becomes the emotional centre of Little Wars. She may be socially separated by age and occupation from the assembled party but has some of the most difficult material to deliver which Karp does with feeling and compassion.

It is perhaps the most famous of the writers – certainly to British audiences – that strikes the wrong note and Sophie Thompson’s Agatha Christie never seems at ease in this company. It’s not quite that she is the only British guest or that she has no religious association with the others, but something in the clipped headmistress tone and cold demeanor that never sits entirely comfortably in this play. Why Christie is here, how she knows or whether she even likes Stein are never fully addressed, and, while McCasland perhaps looks for an outside perspective, besides the value of her illustrious name in this company and the anticipatory value of arriving last, Christie’s presence, trajectory and manner feel entirely superfluous, giving Thompson little to do but wheel out once again the tale of her disappearance following her first husband’s infidelity almost 15 years earlier.

With a charitable donation for every digital ticket sold going to Women for Refugee Women, Little Wars is still an all too rare experience – a play that puts women at its centre without focusing specifically on ‘women’s issues’. With influences from the opening scene of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls to the plethora of imagined conversations between literary, scientific and intellectual greats, McCasland’s play seems destined for a UK stage production in the not too distant future. In the meantime this rehearsed reading via Stream Theatre offers very human portraits of great writers and their imagined meeting in France.

Little Wars is available from Stream Theatre until 14 February and tickets cost £13 including fees. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Blindness – Donmar Warehouse

Blindness - Donmar Warehouse (by Helen Maybanks)

It has been almost five months since theatres closed their doors and many of us will remember distinctly the last show we saw live (the wonderful Peace in Our Time at the Union Theatre). Our first post-lockdown experience will be just as memorable and even a tiny bit emotional, returning to the spaces where we have spent  so many happy and fulfilling hours absorbing lives, stories and experiences that take us beyond our own singular view of the world. And while the mechanics of live indoor performances are still being considered or on indefinite hiatus, first out of the blocks with a fascinating audio experience is the Donmar Warehouse and it is so good to be back!

Radio dramas and auditory experiences have become increasingly popular, the rise in audio books, podcasts and staged readings require audiences to use their imagination to envisage scenes and characters. Recently, the Almeida premiered a new Climate Change-focused radio play by Ben Weatherill at its digital Shifting Tides festival while Bertie Carvel’s Lockdown Theatre Festival on Radio 3 and 4 repurposed new plays suddenly truncated by theatre closures. This feels like a new avenue for drama.

But when Shakespeare asked the audience to pretend the ‘vasty fields of France’ were contained within the ‘wooden O’ of his performance space during the prologue to Henry V there was a tacit acknowledgement that the cast and crew of the theatre can only create so much illusion, everything else rests in the minds of the viewer. And sound design has had an increasingly sophisticated role to play in prompting that imagination in recent years, not only providing a cinematic emotional barometer but also helping to reposition the visual experience by altering what the audience can hear.

One of the most interesting examples of this was Ella Hickson’s Anna at the National Theatre in 2019, a fascinating 60-minute play set during the cold war in which the headphone-wearing audience listened-in to the sounds of a Russian flat in the 1960s. Visually, it was just a living room filled with party guests but we heard private exchanges, activities and frustrations occurring behind the scenes, essentially spying on Anna’s flat which, unbeknownst to her guests, made the audience intimately aware of every offstage rustle of fabric or jagged breath that the eye was unable to see. The masterminds behind this intricate work were Ben and Max Ringham, sound-scaping experts whose design has formed the backdrop to more shows than you may realise and whose work is now firmly in the spotlight.

Blindness is their masterpiece, a 70-minute performance that layers story, sound effects, music and lighting design to immerse the audience in a pandemic experience. Adapted from Jose Saramago’s novel by Simon Stephens, the intimacy of this work is created by the Ringhams who transport you to the middle of a global crisis while using a range of audio techniques, pitches and effects to play with your emotional experience. There are no actors in the room with you but the Donmar’s extraordinary show is as vivid as anything you saw on stage five months ago.

In essence, the show explores the apocalyptic nature of pandemic literature and the dystopian tropes we have come to expect from these stories. The shift from ordinary life to societal breakdown is a recognisable trajectory passing through stages of confusion, denial, panic and the development of a semi-feral state of existence. And whether the source material is a J.G. Ballard novel such as High Rise or H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, the fragility of human societies and how rapidly the veneer of civilisation is defeated by baser impulses to eat, drink and reproduce is a key theme. Within these ideas, writers explore concepts of leadership, brutality, shame and factionalism as tribes form and compete in a survival of the fittest scenario that tries to determine who lives and dies in the new world.

Using Saramago’s novel as a basis, Stephens’s play charts a similar path as the infectious removal of sight spreads without reason from a single victim to the entire population. The descriptions of people’s last moments of vision are eclectic and vivid, from car thieves to lovers to doctors as the white blindness afflicts indiscriminately with only one character inexplicably unaffected and able to coordinate the ensuing battle for survival.  Naturally, daily life disintegrates as Stephens envisages barricaded settlements, a hand-to-mouth existence and brutal encounters with rival clans all of which play out in your mind as you listen to the waves of carnage unfold and recede in fearful isolation.

Blindness is distinguished by having a single narrator and lead character that guides the audience through this journey. Recounted by the Doctor’s Wife, there are reflective passages in which events are described in retrospect from an unspecified future time using an ultimate end point  to give context and drive to the story, while much of the central section is re-enacted, unfolding in real time segments with you acting as a silent character. It is extremely effective, just long enough at 70-minutes not to overuse the device while creating both perspective and a chilling intimacy as you imagine events unfolding around you.

The genius is how sound is then used to fool your brain into believing locational information and using the intimacy of audio techniques to generate very specific emotional responses as the story unfolds. Recorded using a  binaural microphone to create a three-dimensional effect, this changes the perspective from which the sound is heard as footsteps recede in a particular direction or the panicked voice of the Doctor’s Wife comes from different angles. Sitting in the dark, it seems almost that she is standing behind you or, as the sounds moves expertly from one side of your headphones to the other, the skilled combination of voice, movement and the rustle of clothing suggest she is circling you. When she crouches low to whisper quietly and intensely in your ear, it becomes an experience so intimate and invasive that you may feel chills down your back as though she really were at your shoulder.

Supporting sounds begin quietly, a hint of traffic noise and the low thrum of a city, the intense and relentless pulse-like beat that underscores so much drama these days or the occasional specific sound effect that changes location from individual houses to doctor’s surgeries and the echoed abandonment of the buildings of the future. But the way in which the pattern of sound builds during the piece is almost symphonic, crescendos rise and fall in line with the drama, layering intricate sequences of noise that transport the listener entirely into the action, particularly the growing frenzy of the hospital eventually filled with infected patients, reverberating and dangerous, the sounds of metal beds, anguish, fire and confrontation clashing purposefully as tensions rise and the once supportive community fractures irreparably.

And while this show is understandable all about sound, the key to unlocking this drama and your imagination comes from the way presence and absence of your own sight is used very specifically in the production to create the experience of the character you become. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design is both a fun extra as the ushers guide you to a colourfully illuminate seat, and an integral element of the overall immersive quality of the experience. Over your head, the air is dressed with strip lights positioned in horizontal and vertical shapes that pulse with coloured light at crucial points in the show indicating changes of tone, beat and character experience while offering momentary crackles of hope – when these descend to almost eye-level the tenor of the piece changes completely.

This is a show primarily, then, about absolute darkness into which the audience is plunged for much of the show. At first it is unnerving, a complete blackout in which you can only hear events seemingly unfolding around you and, much like the afflicted characters, your brain cannot draw comfort from fellow audience members to remind your where you are. It is overwhelming initially and, with the stifling quality of face masks on a very hot day, creates a brief sensation of panic until you (fairly quickly) adjust to the prolonged darkness and momentary flickers of sight within the remaining portion of the show.

This combination of sound and absence of light is well achieved in a fascinating experiment that increasingly cheats your brain into reacting to the event as though you were a silent participant in the unfolding chaos. All of this is pinned convincingly together by Stephens’s adaptation that distills the wider cast and scope of Saramago’s novel into essentially a one-woman show through whose eyes – as the only person with sight – the audience hears the story evolve. Stephens’s achievement is not to dramatise every moment but to build a picture of infection and societal decline through fragments of narrative that develop chronologically. As tensions rise, he utilises quick cuts between increasingly dangerous scenarios and moments of temporary lull to reinforce the ongoing strain as future attacks are anticipated. Smartly, it offers the audience a flavour of the boiling discontent, turf wars and horrifying violence resulting from the renunciation of humanity without being overly prescriptive, a prompt to your imagination that fills in the rest for itself.

Juliet Stevenson as narrator and lead character helps to pin the combined influences of story and design together, giving both a perspective of calm reflection told from a future point of safety while slowly developing the anxiety of disintegration as months or perhaps years elapse. The orderly sensibility of the Doctor’s Wife turns gradually to something stronger as authority develops not just through having sight but a clear sense of purpose or duty to help the little band of the afflicted that she collects. When more desperate times emerge later in the story, Stevenson’s character graduates to darker territory, finding reserves of menace and a preparedness to do whatever it takes as protector and captain. And while rage, frustration and violence erupt from her prolonged state of weary management, she remains kind and attentive to you as her husband – and interesting to see a rounded female lead in the mold of other sci-fi heroines with agency and narrative force.

This is a great first step back to full performance for the Donmar Warehouse and the various safety measures are managed with extreme care by the front of house staff, allowing 40-50 people to experience the performance four times a day. Whether we are still at the beginning, middle or end of our own pandemic remains to be seen but there is hope both in Stephens’s play and in just being able to open this theatre at all. And it is so wonderful to be back. Lizzie Clachan may have slightly reconfigured this beloved room where so many wonderful stories have been told in recent years – Teenage Dick, Far Away, Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, Sweat and Les Liaisons Dangereuses among them – but the unusual and evocative Blindness is a memorable first post-lockdown theatre experience and will help the Donmar find its way back to the light.

Blindness is at the Donmar Warehouse until 22 August with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Hamlet – The Almeida


hamlet-the-almeida-by-miles-aldridgeAt just shy of four hours, it’s fair to say the Almeida’s new version of Hamlet, which has its press night tomorrow, is by far the longest I’ve ever seen, and while it doesn’t always feel as long as it is, anyone lucky enough to have tickets to this already sold out run should brace themselves for a marathon. And while the overall production is pretty good, has a quite excellent central performance and is bubbling with ideas, it also has a few inconsistencies and frustrations that the extended length draws attention to. But of course four hours is an awfully long time to be doing anything; you could watch two movies, take the Eurostar from London to Paris and start to sightsee, read a 200 page book or watch an omnibus edition of Four in a Bed and still have 90 minutes to spare.

But Hamlet is a character that you want to spend time with, an endlessly fascinating creation who holds a ‘mirror up to nature’ and gets to the very heart of life, death, grief and madness, who for centuries has attracted actors desperate for their turn to play the role. There is no wrong way to perform it because it is always a very personal reading, and 18 months ago, when reviewing Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican, I talked about there being as many interpretations of Hamlet as there are actors to play him and audiences to watch. What you see in Hamlet will depend on you and eventually there will be an actor who plays him exactly as you imagine he should be.

In recent times most of the versions we’ve seen have largely been straightforward hero-Hamlets, distraught with grief and feigning madness to seek a just revenge, while the actors who’ve played him, despite nuances they bring to the character are those we largely associated with good-guy roles – Tennant, Cumberbatch, Whishaw – all actors the public see a certain way, playing characters who are at heart decent people. So it feels right that Andrew Scott’s new version at The Almeida shifts the balance, giving us a Hamlet that is full of rage and bitterness, whose true madness is entirely possible.

Director Robert Icke has set his version in a sleek office or waiting room,  a purgatorial no man’s land, with sliding glass doors that lead to a rear section of the stage where occasional images are played at the back of the action – Gertrude and Claudius dancing happily at their wedding, Hamlet visiting Ophelia in her closet – which brings out the play’s sense of layers, while the glass doors offer distorted reflections of the characters, the mirroring that Hamlet refers to early on. Although seemingly a modern-day piece, Hildegard Bechtler’s set has a 70s minimalist quality that feels like a muted David Hockney painting from his California series with sharp interior and reflective surfaces.

On top of that Icke has added a big screen that displays Danish newsfeeds of this royal family and the approach of Fortinbras’s army (meaning he never appears on stage) as well as images from the various CCTV cameras that first capture the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Reactions to the Gonzago play and the fencing contest are also shown using video projection. All of this should imply people under constant scrutiny living very public lives, and deals with the difficulty of presenting the larger scale sections in the tiny Almeida space.

But, like last year’s Richard III, the technology is not consistently applied and while spying is a significant part of the play (Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet, while Hamlet spies on Claudius) the CCTV isn’t used to create much sense of claustrophobia, while the filming idea feels more about staging issues than integral to the world Icke has created, one that has live streaming of events but people still receive notes on paper and no one appears to have a phone or computer. Its setting, then, is a half-way house between old and new in terms of look, as well as recombining elements from earlier iterations of Hamlet – notably Greg Doran’s 2008 version for the RSC that used mirrored sets, CCTV and filming Claudius to similar effect although here the technology is a decade on.

The technology isn’t much of a distraction and for the most part the audience can concentrate entirely on the performances, when even Tom Gibbons’s semi-permanent soundscape of music and thudding beats thankfully stops to hear the big soliloquies in perfect silence. Scott’s Hamlet connects to a grief and passionate anger that for much of the play barely contains his affecting sobs of despair. The court around him is light and happy, so rather than a pure hero, Scott’s Hamlet becomes the dark and destructive presence that threatens the contentment of those around him. There are moments of wit (and people titter every time they recognise a line) but this is more than a melancholy young man, this is a serious and furiously frenzied Hamlet shouting at the world.

Scott captivates the audience, bringing an energy and ferocity to the production that means the question of Hamlet’s madness remains ambiguous. He clearly gives the role everything he has in a mammoth performance, and when he delivers all the big soliloquies, choosing to engage directly with the audience rather than as dialogues within his own mind, you could hear a pin drop so expertly has he drawn the viewer into the debates, building each speech from frustrated philosophising to rating rages against Claudius, the court and his own ‘blunted purpose’. This Hamlet, wired and on the edge, changes on his return from England but rather than the beatific man we often see, Scott’s Hamlet is resigned to his fate, knowing what will come and letting it play out, as if he has lost whatever fight he had and finally decided ‘not to be’.

The rest of the cast is more mixed however but bring a welcome freshness to Polonius and his children which add to the tragedy of the final moments. So often, productions focus on the royal family with Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia just grist to the mill, unfortunate side-effects in Hamlet’s just quest for vengeance. But here we see them as central to  Hamlet’s own growing madness, a loving and warm family, close and affectionate, unlike his own, that he ultimately destroys – something the audience is asked to linger on in the otherwise dreadful misfire of a ‘heaven-wedding’ ending.

Polonius is usually quite annoying, prattling on only for Hamlet to outwit him. Instead, Peter Wright makes him a loving father, run ragged and highly sympathetic as he delivers news to his royal masters. While the part feels reduced, Wright conveys the notion of a decent and hard-working man looking out for his family which adds genuine sadness to his end. Similarly Ophelia is less fey than usual and the production takes time to create some chemistry with Hamlet while Jessica Brown Findlay delivers the verse quite naturally, although sometimes a little too fast. A minor frustration is her appearance topless in a bath at the back of the stage in a non-verbal scene and is yet another instance of actresses being asked to do something that adds nothing whatsoever to the plot in a production that contains no other nudity. Her madness scenes are less convincing but that is more to do with the way they are presented than her performance, and she too offers a sense of raging grief that reflects Scott’s approach.

Laertes is a small but important role that is often seen as the antithesis of Hamlet’s character. Laertes has greater cause for upset than his former friend, having lost two members of his family, and unlike Hamlet, chooses to act instantly and violently. But with so many hero-Hamlets of late, Laertes is often forgotten, but Luke Thompson brings a nuance to the role which adds an interesting contrast with Scott’s darker Hamlet. While Laertes is comfortably happy and well-loved at the start, Thompson’s return toward the end of the play is a fiery rage of grief and anger – again mirroring Scott’s approach – that makes perfect sense in light of Claudius’s plan. But what is so interesting in this performance is the growing reluctance to see it through, so Thompson’s hands shake, he holds back in the fencing and you see his fear growing as his better nature takes over. It is a very fine performance (the latest in a growing portfolio for the actor) and the mastery of indecision here may set him up well to give his own Hamlet one day.

Less successful however are Claudius and Gertrude, with Angus Wright’s Claudius being virtually without menace. We see them first very much in love at their wedding and for a while we could believe that Hamlet is wrong about his uncle. Maybe Wright is saving his darkness for press night but he hasn’t found the lust for power and the attraction of Claudius yet. He is perhaps miscast, whereas the superb David Rintoul who plays the Ghost and Player King (a neat comment on the potential illusion of Hamlet’s father) could be a considerably more charismatic Claudius. The production also makes the strange decision to have Claudius perform his confessional speech directly to the gun-toting Hamlet rather than have it overheard. But, confessing to Hamlet’s face makes little sense when Hamlet does nothing about it, psychologically he gets the same information and behaves the same way by overhearing it, while being told directly and not shooting him then and there doesn’t quite fit.

Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude has a little more opacity and we’re never quite sure if she is complicit in the death of her first husband, and indeed whether she loves Hamlet at all. Stevenson hints at both these things, particularly in the opening scene as she shows considerable affection to Laertes but doesn’t touch her son. Yet, these two ideas could run more consistently through the performance if Stevenson wants to add a new interpretation to the Gertrude as Lady Macbeth approach.

There are plenty of unanswered questions in The Almeida’s new Hamlet with lots of visual concepts on show that don’t always tie into the production. Ophelia sports some very bad peroxide hair while Laertes has a visible tattoo on his neck which is never referenced, whether these belong to the actors, are for other roles or are meant to suggest the Polonius family are a bit chavvy is unclear, as is the elongated wedding day timeline at the beginning which upsets the point at which Hamlet’s madness is supposed to begin, or the handover of watches at the end showing that time has run out, which needed to be meaningfully referenced throughout to have any significance here.

Despite its length, this is an engaging and highly watchable production that uses its variable pace to just about keep everyone on-board and fully engaged to the end. Part One is 1 hour and 45 minutes which meanders most, but Part Two at 35 minutes and Part Three at 55 minutes ramp up the drama and pressure very well. Overall the approach is an interesting one, and while like Cumberbatch’s version, the production doesn’t always fully align with its star, there are plenty of fresh ideas and excellent performances that make this highly enjoyable. There are lots of things you could do with four hours, but watching Andrew Scott’s powerful and raging Hamlet is certainly one of them, just prepare for a marathon – ‘the readiness is all’.

Hamlet is at The Almeida until 15 April. The production is largely sold out but day tickets and returns are available from £10. The Almeida also has a series of events, talks and activities in their Hamlet for Free Festival from 10-13 April.

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Mary Stuart – Almeida


Monarchy and death are integral to one another. The nature of hereditary governance means that a new King or Queen usually only succeeds to the role they’ve prepared their whole lives for on the death of a parent. A monarch’s reign begins with grief and ends in death, but rarely have living monarchs had the destiny of a foreign displaced ruler in their hands. Schiller’s Mary Stuart details one such occasion, and probably history’s most famous example – when deposed Scottish Queen Mary sought refuge in England but was kept prisoner for 19 years by her royal cousin Elizabeth I.

Schiller’s play, now over 200 years old, has only limited claims to authenticity and his preference for telling Mary’s side of the story is clear, yet there is plenty of nuance to keep dramatists happy. Previous lauded productions have emphasised the difference between the two Queens, while in the Almeida’s new version, it is their similarities and entwined destinies that are played up. The historical record partially supports both interpretations, although more recent scholarship has tended to celebrate Elizabeth’s ability to put duty before her personal needs.

The conceit of Robert Icke’s new version is that the lead roles are played by both Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, decided in ceremony at the start of each performance by the toss of a coin. Destiny decides who is who each day, and we are asked to accept that Elizabeth and Mary could so easily have known each other’s fate. And within that context of the play and in history that is true… to a point.

At the start, both Queens process to the stage from the rear stalls while John Light as the Earl of Leicester – the man, in Schiller’s partially fabricated account, who is caught between them – spins a coin, and as soon as it falls everything swing into action. In the version I saw, Williams played Mary and it is with her that we spend much of the early part of the play. Ever a magnet for plots and schemes, the narrative hinges on the extent to which Mary knew or even instigated any of them, and whether Elizabeth as a fellow monarch had any right to take her life for it, even when such machinations threatened her own.

It is clear enough in Schiller’s writing, and consequently in Icke’s staging, that Elizabeth is a monster and Mary largely a poor victim of her merciless royal cousin. While production values and performance are high, it is difficult not to be a little disappointed that there wasn’t more ambiguity in the relationship between these two women, which is one of the main reasons they continue to fascinate us. Should Elizabeth be condemned for ending Mary’s life when there was considerable circumstantial proof that Mary had repeatedly tried to deprive Elizabeth of hers?

There are throw-away comments about the nature of the two Queens, with Mary giving herself over repeatedly to her femininity and multiple lovers which leads to acts of betrayal, while Elizabeth flirted and cajoled but ultimately jettisoned an ordinary personal life to maintain stability and loyalty in a kingdom riven by religious wars and factions for more than 20 years prior to her accession.  And there is much that could be made of these nuances in a production that seems to favour Mary’s cause.

Part of that is down to Lia Williams’s dominating performance as the calculating and martyred Mary. The audience never quite knows if she is playing them – is she genuinely an innocent in these plots, is she the centre of a very tangled web, or perhaps she has just convinced herself that she’s not responsible? Clearly Schiller and  Icke tilt the action in her favour but Williams grasps the opportunity the playwright offers to display a range of interesting emotions from regret for her lasciviousness and involvement in the murder and downfall of her former husbands, to outrage at the prolonged confinement as a political refugee and barely concealed glee at the thought of taking her cousin’s place, as well as utilisation of her fervent Catholic faith in “proving” herself innocent of the plots against Elizabeth.

Yet, the rest of the production, thought simply staged, doesn’t quite match up to these ambiguities. It takes a while for Elizabeth and her court to appear and there seems considerably less emphasis on understanding her motivation in the context of her reign. Stripped of all circumstance, Elizabeth becomes someone who grants asylum to her unnamed heir, imprisons her for nearly two decades and is led by ‘evil counsellors’ to grant her rival’s execution largely out of jealousy.

But if you put the circumstances back in, then Elizabeth’s position becomes more sympathetic and even understandable – something this production doesn’t fully acknowledge. By the time of this play, 1587, Elizabeth had been Queen for 30 years, making her and Mary in their 50s (and thus much older than Schiller suggests). During that time she had balanced the extreme religious divisions that saw England become first virtually puritan and then fanatically Catholic in the 10 years of her siblings’ reigns, as well as constant questions about her legitimacy, marriageability and skill in managing a dissenting aristocracy, divisions Elizabeth had carefully navigated for three decades. The arrival of Mary Queen of Scots on English soil, a deposed Catholic from a rival power linked to the murder of her own husband and years of poor decision-making, was a huge and complicated problem for the English monarch that could only inflame various divisions in her own realm. Protect her or remove her, the consequences were significant; Elizabeth was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.

These are aspect Schiller overlooks and Icke’s production barely references. Juliet Stevenson gives us some of Elizabeth’s indecisiveness, her famous prevarication, anger and recrimination but not much of her heart. In part one, she paces and frowns, in part two she becomes hysterical, it’s undoubtedly what Schiller wants but it’s not all there is to the character. For a story that’s almost entirely about power-play this is curiously wordy and slow at times. In over three hours reams of dialogue and an occasional confusion of characters slacken what should be a dangerous pace, and where Elizabeth could be seen to be rushed into a decision by urgency, here that is a more leisurely feel.

The surrounding cast are fine with Vincent Franklin as Burleigh giving sage advice but with a nod to the longstanding rivalry with John Light’s Leicester – a character who is actually much maligned by Schiller in this play. For a very long time the Earl of Leicester’s reputation was diabolical, a man thought to have murdered his own wife to try and marry his Queen and was blamed for many of the ills of Elizabethan England. This was very much the man Schiller presented in 1800, whereas in recent times historians have restored Leicester’s reputation and done much to prove the allegations against him were largely groundless.

Nonetheless he is a driving force in this play as the man between the two Queens and John Light gives a compelling and highly engaging performance that adds drama to any scene in which he appears. In truth Leicester was absent from the country for most of the years around Mary’s execution, serving in the Netherlands and unlikely to have had as decisive a hand in events as Schiller depicts. Rather than playing both women, Leicester had tired of Elizabeth’s decades of dithering and married Lettice Knollys in 1578 so the fervent sexual connection suggested here between Elizabeth and Leicester would have long gone off the boil. Likewise the character of Mortimer who seeds and enacts the final plot to remove Elizabeth and replace her with Mary is entirely the author’s creation.

With a fair amount of critical approval for this role-swapping production and expectations consequently high, it was difficult not to be a little underwhelmed in the end by the too clear-cut approach to heroes and villains that the production takes. Although history and drama needn’t accord, and central performances aside, the production felt like a missed opportunity to present a more complex picture of Mary’s execution.

It may seem strange to have included so much comparison with history in a theatre review, but when the central premise of this production is that Mary and Elizabeth could so easily have had the other’s fate – a conclusion drawn not entirely from the text alone – I was not convinced that was true. Besides their royal status and lineage, the production doesn’t fully makes the case for their interchangeability; Mary was full of human weakness, now remembered more for the manner of her death than even the scandals that took her there, while Elizabeth’s dealings with Mary were one aspect of a 45 year reign that marked her as one of England’s most successful monarchs. The Almeida’s version of Schiller’s play is decent enough, but the truth is so much more interesting.

Mary Stuart is at the Almeida until 21 January. Tickets are mostly sold out but extra tickets are released often from £10.

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