Tag Archives: Karl Johnson

Under Milk Wood – National Theatre

Under Milk Wood - National Theatre (by Viktor Gardsater)

There is something very comforting about walking over Waterloo Bridge and seeing the lights blazing in the National Theatre once more, and while full capacity audiences may still be some time away, the reopening of two of its three spaces in quick succession and the recent announcement of a year-long season, means this premiere venue is very much back in business. Only able to open one of its stages in the past 16-months, the resumption of performances in the Dorfman earlier in June with the premiere of Jack Thorne’s poignant new play After Life was a notable success. Now, the Olivier is also back online following its transformation into a 500-seat in-the-round space which briefly welcomed the Death of England: Delroy and Dick Whittington before successive lockdowns prematurely ended both runs. It returns with a beautifully pitched adaptation of the Dylan Thomas drama Under Milk Wood originally written for radio.

Premiering in 1954, Thomas’s much adapted drama has been produced many times as theatre, film, animation and even an album, and has featured renowned performers in the role of ‘First Voice’ including Thomas himself, Richard Burton, Antony Hopkins and most recently Michael Sheen for the BBC who also heads this National Theatre cast. Like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town which had a solid revival at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2019, Under Milk Wood explores the various families and experiences in a single village as a community is both dissected by its author and comes together to work, to gossip and to pass the time.

Taking place across 24-hours, liked Wilder, Thomas uses the structure of the day to suggest the endless routine of the villagers in Llareggub, a sense that their lives are ordinary, small and lacking in notable drama while also unchanging, solid and predictable. Mr and Mrs Pugh snipe at each other over every meal, Captain Cat sits in the same chair listening to the sounds of the world outside, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard cleans her guest-less guesthouse and Mrs Cherry Owen watches her husband get drunk. On the surface, their lives are unremarkable, a place where nothing changes as day becomes night and night becomes day.

Yet, within the confines of this tale, Thomas expands the inner lives and needs of his characters, each haunted by the loss of a loved one, the dream of an unfulfilled life or the expectation of a future happiness that never comes. There is real tenderness in the way Thomas explores these wistful remembrances and the ghostly presence that haunts them all. But far from lifeless and in their own ways frozen in time, their existence in memories, hopes and illusions suffused with these emotion makes them seem more alive than ever.

Lyndsey Turner’s production for the National Theatre understands this completely. Before Thomas can ‘begin at the beginning’ there is some valuable scene setting to be done which gives the evocation of Milk Wood, the village of Llareggub and its community an added purpose by adding a frame, a tool through which the audience can view a wider context and purpose. This additional material written by Sian Owen bookends the play, focusing on Owain Jenkins’s attempts to renew a severed connection with his ailing father Richard. More than an amusing story of yesteryear, the telling of Under Milk Wood thus becomes a heartwarming act of love.

Owen’s sets her adaptation in a Care Home, a place pointedly filled with forgotten people, their age determining that their best years are behind them and, while treated kindly by the nursing staff, there is little to distinguish them from one another. The ten residents shuffle around, watch television and sit in their favourite chair with hobbies and crafts to pass the time – and already the daily trajectory of these characters echoes Thomas’s villagers. Owen’s big idea is to disrupt the routine with the arrival early one morning of Owain Jenkins demanding to see his father out of hours.

This cleverly sets in motion the circumstances that will lead to the slow recreation of Milk Wood and Llareggub as Owain’s desperation to form a lucid connection to the bewildered Richard takes them to a photograph album and ultimately to the famous beginning of Thomas’s drama where, to prompt his father’s memory, Owain assumes the role of First Voice and takes his father back in time hoping to provoke some shared memories of the place and its people. It is a lovely idea, one that gives renewed purpose and distinction to this retelling and is consistently maintained throughout the production as Owain becomes both Richard and the audience’s guide to the world of Llareggub while investing the original narrator character with an emotional investment in the retelling of this story.

Aware of its radio play origins and the lush vocabulary and rhythms of Thomas’s writing, Turner avoids the temptation to ‘act’ the entirety of the piece in the conventional sense. Instead, the simplicity of the Care Home is maintained for far longer than you might expect and Turner doesn’t succumb to audience expectation for some theatre magic to clear away the day room and replace it with the colourful houses and characters of Llareggub immediately. Instead, Turner tries to offer the viewer the best of both worlds, relying on Owain to set the scene using only Thomas’s descriptions, making this part audio drama that requires the audience to use their imagination to conjure the scene – much as Ellen McDougall’s production of Our Town did.

Enhancing the effect, residents and Care Home workers steadily assume the persona of the Under Milk Wood characters, fleetingly at first as they are momentarily enchanted as they pass by Owain, physically adjusting to a new role as he anoints each one with an alter ego like statues coming to life or somnambulists gently reviving before the moment passes and they go on their way. As Owain describes the villagers’ dreams, Turner controls the flow of the early segments of Thomas’s work with care, introducing faint fragments of sound that begin to break down the barrier between past and present, transporting the audience in stages to Llareggub before its inhabitants come to life in full which is timed to coincide with the dawn.

Under Milk Wood doesn’t have a single plot as such so what follows is a series of scenes that meet the same characters at different points in their day, controlled in flows of activity that cross the Olivier stage, all conjured by Owain. There is some clever stagecraft from the National team, particularly set designer Merle Hensel who dispenses with fixed backdrops and uses a series of illustrative props to represent the roles or activities of the villagers. Fluidity is created with rotating table tops and cloths whipped off to instantly move the scene to another household, while actors sharing the same piece of furniture can be in entirely different family set-ups as Thomas light-footedly skips between homes.

This building sense of community and multiple lives being lived simultaneously is well managed in Turner’s production which finds a strong balance between comedy and pathos. The mismatched Pughs are particularly memorable as Cleo Sylvestre’s acidic and controlling wife becomes a bane to Alan David’s scheming husband, ordering books on poisoning and dreaming of dispensing with his spouse. But it is some of the darker moments that linger most and, supported by Tim Lutkin’s lighting design that evolves from the warm orange of daybreak and the spring morning to starker blues and near blackout for the introspective moments, the layers of memory and regret in Thomas’s work are acutely felt.

Particularly affecting is Polly Garter played with a sharp nostalgic yearning by Sian Phillips who sings for her lost loves while evoking all the loneliness of her current and future state. Likewise, Susan Brown’s Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard is tormented by the ghosts of two lost husbands, paralysed by grief as the sun finally goes down, while Antony O’Donnell’s Captain Cat meaningfully observers the village from his window while remembering his lost shipmates and deceased lover Rosie (Kezrena James). Turner’s production has vibrancy and life but is underscored by a fragility, a consciousness that these are just fragments or ghosts exuding from Owain’s mind, a people lost long ago that will dissolve in an instant, and it gives this production a sorrowfulness that is quite affecting.

Nowhere is this more tangibly realised than in the relationship between Owain and Richard that is threaded through the entire piece as a worried son tries to help his father find his way back to their shared memory. Both are on stage for almost the entire show as onlookers in the village scenes, like Scrooge and the trilogy of Christmas Ghosts observing the things that have been. Turner and Owen have together created a strong purpose as Owain tries to provoke his father’s memory which overlays Thomas’s own anthology approach to structurally and emotionally pin this expanded production of Under Milk Wood together, driven by the reawakening of and reconnection with Richard.

Michael Sheen is superb as Owain and gives Thomas’s words a mellifluous reading in what is a complex and demanding role that is as much a feat of stamina and memory as performance. There is excitement and enthusiasm for the village, amusement at its people and poignancy in its more tragic undercurrents, and Sheen eases the audience through all of the changes in pace, tone and direction that Thomas demands. When he accidentally assumes the role of alcoholic Mr Cherry Owen there is some mirroring of Owain’s own personality, himself a secret drinker whose regretful reflections take on a valuable duality.

Yet, some of the very best moments are entirely unscripted and the absorption in Owain’s character is such that Sheen looks constantly to Karl Johnson’s Richard for his reactions to the appearance of every new Llareggub resident. Much of this may go largely unnoticed by an audience distracted by the village scene playing out centre stage, but Sheen is immersed in Owain’s emotional state and commitment to the psychology of his character who hopes that something will trigger in his father’s mind. These tiny moments of care and concern are happening throughout Sheen’s performance, manifesting as Owain’s reason for creating this story and demonstrating a son’s act of love for his father that becomes quietly moving.

Johnson has much less dialogue and hardly speaks at all but emotes all the confusion of his character who sits on the sidelines for large parts of the play unsure what is happening. But Johnson is acting all the time, sometimes lost in Richard’s own world, sometimes captivated by the snatches of something he recognises which develop as the story unfolds, taking him to some unexpected places. There is lots of saddness in Johnson’s portrayal of Richard, a heartfelt pity for the things he has lost but Johnson gives him some hope as well, creating real theatrical power in his final moments with Sheen.

Making Under Milk Wood a story within a story is a risk but one that pays off, adding a tender father-son connection that ties that multifaceted sprawl of Thomas’s story together. The rich tones of Thomas’s language and the splintered nature of the drama may not be to everyone’s taste but it is really exciting to see an older cast being given the opportunity to play characters of all ages. They are utterly convincing as the wide-ranging and lively inhabitants of Llareggub, while subtly reinforcing Owen and Turner’s Care Home concept of individuality revived. After Life and Under Milk Wood are meaningful and compassionate pieces, a strong return to live performance for the National Theatre whose lights are blazing once more.

Under Milk Wood is at the National Theatre until 24 July and is largely sold out but returns are available and the show is part of the Friday Rush scheme. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Frankenstein vs. Frankenstein – National Theatre at Home

Frankenstein - National Theatre

The National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein is one of the great pieces of twenty-first century drama, a rare combination of directorial vision, gripping storytelling, outstanding production values and two great actors at the top of their game alternating the lead roles night after night. A repeat favourite for NT Live screenings that consistently sells well, the decision to stream both versions as part of the National Theatre at Home series is a canny one. Intending to unite a community of theatre-lovers online, the programme began with the cheeky brilliance of One Man, Two Guvnors attracting over a million viewers on the first night, but for the three screenings since then viewing figures have dwindled. And while showing plays for free has been a welcome and public spirited act by one of our foremost theatres, there are big financial drivers – fewer viewers mean fewer donations at a crucial time.

Understandably then the announcement that Antony and Cleopatra would be preceded by a double bill of Frankensteins caused a bit of a flutter, combining one of their most recent productions staged just last year with unarguably one of their greatest. A very public boost for the NT, this rare two-premiere week aired Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature on Thursday night, followed by Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature on Friday, making both available for seven days. Other than a general preference for one actor over another, is there any benefit in seeing both versions and was role swapping any more than a gimmick?

The audience certainly didn’t think so, and Cumberbatch’s version had attracted close to 800,000 views in the first 24 hours, while Miller racked up a further 300,000 by Saturday night. Regular theatre goers will often see many versions of the same play each year, the sunnier months are packed with productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream while some years you can barely move for Hamlets and Macbeths at every playhouse. And excepting musicals such as Dear Evan Hansen where the young leads rotate, in drama unless an understudy is required to assume the role from an indisposed star, you are rarely afforded the chance to see the same show transformed by an alternative actor.

So, seeing both versions of Frankenstein in quick succession is a fascinating experience, the sets, blocking and text are all the same, yet the whole concept of the show is cast anew by the differing interpretations of the actors. The similarities and differences in their approaches are considerable and while it is tempting to try a ‘who played it best’ game, it is far more interesting to consider how interchanging the actors speaks purposefully to Danny Boyle’s vision for a show in which creature and creator are one and the same, and the extent to which Cumberbatch and Miller take their distinct interpretations of Doctor Frankenstein into their performance as the Creature.

The conceit of the actors sharing the primary roles is more than a fun gimmick intending to lure audiences back a second time, and, even years later on film, it is clear that the concept gets to the very heart of Boyle’s approach, the idea that all men are simultaneously man and monster, creator and destroyer. Thus, in each version we see not only how Frankenstein and the Creature are two sides of each other, but, as the posters for this show so carefully suggest, how each actor finds a similar balance within themselves as their different but valid and meaningful approaches to both roles come to life.

The Creature

Cumberbatch’s Creature begins with a childlike wonder at the world, his body may be formed but his mind is in infancy therefore much of the early part of the show involves the basic stages of human development, learning to walk, make sounds, form words and to assimilate behaviours. There is a wonderous joy to the Creature’s fascination with weather as he plays in the rain or clutches at the snow, while the bond he quickly forms with Karl Johnson’s gentle and caring De Lacey is full of pathos. And the viewer feels how decisively Cumberbatch’s Creature is severed from his own innate goodness and innocence which draws on the religious themes of the play, a symbolic Adam enjoying the Garden of Eden but cast out to become a destructive force.

Cumberbatch’s approach gives this version of the play an almost magical or supernatural quality, a warped fairy tale of man corrupted, playing-out against the heightened reality of Mark Tildesley’s stunning set design in bold reds and orange, or cool mystical whites. The rippling effects created by Bruno Poet’s lighting design emphasise the electrical spark of life, governed by an array of lightbulbs above the stage that pulse and shine with an other-worldliness suggestive of an unseen  God observing and eventually punishing Frankenstein’s folly. Cumberbatch’s Creature charts a path of tragic inevitability, the man who didn’t ask to be born labelled as physically, emotionally and mentally unsuited for society while forces beyond his control shape his destiny.

Contrast this with Miller’s earthier approach which fundamentally alters the air around the stationary elements of this production. His Creature is born a fully formed man, his gestures and movements are not those of tender discovery but of pre-determined certainty, while his mind which is under-developed at the start, is an adult brain struggling to form thoughts and expression, limited by the particular stitches and connections of the anatomy created for him. But most importantly there is a physical heft to Miller’s performance that draws out the dangerous side of the Creature much earlier, making sense of the fear he engenders in others. While he is capable of kindness and soulful contemplation, this Creature is instantly corrupted by Frankenstein’s abandonment and full of rage that good principles and intellectualism will never subdue.

Miller’s approach comments on the fallacy of human society, a veneer of behaviours and imposed moral values that attempt to control and contain the inner beast. Suddenly Tildesley’s set and Poet’s colourful lighting no longer seem full of twinkling possibility and the comforts of God, but dark and unyielding markers of a violent and desolate world. So, as the burning red of De Lacey’s farmhouse gives way to the eerie placidity of Lake Geneva, the tone is far darker, a hopeless landscape of endless fire and ice. The staging is exactly the same, the lighting cues just as they were in Cumberbatch’s version but Miller’s very distinct interpretation casts the whole story quite differently. This is why Boyle’s duel approach is so fascinating, as innocence and darkness contend across the two productions.


By necessity then, both approaches also affect how the actors play Frankenstein, although there are more similarities here because the famous doctor is described by others in the play as aloof and distracted, there are nonetheless subtle differences in the degrees of cruelty that the performers introduce into their interpretations. Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein is in some ways a deliberately harsh figure, he berates the small mindedness of those around him, angrily dismisses the ‘little people with their little lives’, words he spits out to his creation and actively emphasises his mental superiority to those he supposedly cares for, including his fiancee Elizabeth. Cumberbatch’s arrogant and occasionally smugly superior Frankenstein has a distinctive God-complex, thrilled by his ability to control life and death.

His interaction with the Creature doesn’t make him any humbler, holding fast to the idea that his creation has no right to independence, no fatherly compassion for his suffering or vision beyond his own academic needs. In line with Miller’s more masculine interpretation, Frankenstein’s determination to destroy the Creature comes from a cold scientific belief that he has served his purpose and no longer matters, treating the world, as Elizabeth shrewdly points out, as specimens to be studied and disposed of.

Miller’s Frankenstein has a similar arrogance about his talent as a scientist but he seems more bemused than bewitched by his ability to create life. There is a sense of burden on the shoulders of Miller’s Frankenstein – which sits in the context of Cumberbatch’s Creature emphasising the external drivers of destiny – of weary inevitability that forces his absence from the world. The aloofness that frustrates his family comes from a place of fear and an inability to forge human connection that instead drives his desire to create in the hope of locating his own emotional centre.

The confrontations with the Creature, then, are less affect by the imposing bulk of the man but a powerlessness in Frankenstein as a new sense of responsibility and consequence overwhelm him. Rather than revel in his God-like potency, Miller suggests how Frankenstein is weighed down by his fate, and in trying to fight against it, must eventually give himself over to the certainty of eternal punishment by coming to accept the independence and right to existence his Creature has earned. Thus, the outward signals of these two Frankensteins are similar but the interior life the actors create gives them a different emphasis.

The Creature vs. Frankenstein

Seeing two distinct approaches to the same character proves fascinating and your preference for one version over the other will depend on which actor you like in general and the tone that best suits your interpretation of this famous story. Yet, the two productions really function as intricately calibrated complimentary pieces in which the performers explored the notion of duality. The innocence of Cumberbatch’s guileless Creature fascinated by the simplicity of his own existence contrasts with Cumberbatch’s intense and compassionless Frankenstein, all the goodness and wonder of the world stored in his creation, with all the arrogance of man’s corruption in his creator. Meanwhile Miller’s more brutish Creature who accepts the base nature of his fellow men is met by the emotional uncertainty of his own Frankenstein, a man trapped by circumstance and resigned to his fate.

Boyle’s production is the star and makes you long for the director to return to stage (and slight mourning his Bond that never was). The National Theatre’s decision to stream his two productions is a smart one and they offer a huge amount of insight seen side-by-side. This is the theatre at its very best and on screen, both productions are gripping, using the camera work to richly convey the abstract shapes and grand vision of its boldly beautiful staging, while allowing the connection between the lead actors to shine. Most interesting of all is not whether Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller is ‘better’ in a particular role but what each actor reveals and emphasises within the two roles they play, and where they think the monstrous nature of man truly resides.

Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature is available until 7 May while Frankenstein with Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature is available until 8 May on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel for free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Endgame and Rough for Theatre II – The Old Vic

Endgame - Old Vic

It is a great time for Samuel Beckett fans, a highly acclaimed triple bill is running at the Jermyn Street Theatre and this week the Old Vic adds a double bill of Endgame and Rough for Theatre II which opens to the press tomorrow, welcoming Daniel Radcliffe back to the theatre where his starring role in Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet homage three years ago was warmly received. Joining him after more than a decade away from the West End is Alan Cumming lured back to London by these less-frequently performed Beckett works and Matthew Warchus’s theatre which is enjoying an exceptional run of form.

For some time now, the Old Vic has programmed a series of unmissable hits while attracting some of the biggest stars of stage and screen. The superb All My Sons last April was the highlight of a much wider presentation of Arthur Miller’s work and starred West End debutantes Bill Pullman, Sally Field and Jenna Coleman alongside theatre devotee Colin Morgan. Noel Coward was given a spritz of modern spice and morality with an outstanding version of Present Laughter with an exemplary Andrew Scott at the helm which was then replaced by stars of The Crown, Claire Foy and Matt Smith who have earned a Broadway transfer for parental drama Lungs. And with Timothee Chalamet appearing with Eileen Atkins in their next play 4000 Miles, the Old Vic is almost unrivaled in its shrewd combination of modern twentieth and twenty-first century classics with all-star casts.

Rough for Theatre II

Beckett, then, should be in safe hands and the evening begins with Rough For Theatre II, a slight drama in length if not in meaning. At only 25-minutes this is a little performed if engrossing piece as two bureaucrats debate the life and worth of a suicide case to determine whether or not the man should jump. Like Pinter, Beckett’s choices are very specific, using vocabulary, sentence structure, movement and stage directions to create a precise and controlled effect, choosing at what point the actors move or react to the slowly changing perspective within the story.

Here in Rough for Theatre II, designer Stewart Laing sets the entire piece on a small apron appended to the front of the stage in front of the main curtain where two small square desks and chairs face each other on opposite ends of the room. Each symmetrical desk has a lamp which becomes integral to the plot while the centre is dominated by a figure standing on the precipice of an open window – the entire effect has a soulless American classic theme, a place of formality and governance, but also of emptiness and hopelessness.

Laing simultaneously creates space and confinement around the three figures, suggesting the official distance of executive authority that allows the two men to speak with distracted formality, almost dismissal while arguing for the man’s death, yet the narrowed playing space, the long thin strip of stage at the same time moves the characters into each other’s space to clearly uncomfortable effect. It is briskly managed and Richard Jones as director emphasises the emotional interior of the antagonists while exploring the shifting relationship between them as it considers their pride in their work, attention to minutiae, individual fears and growing frustrations.

Character A who is sometimes known as Bertrand, played here by Radcliffe, is entirely at ease with himself and his role in determining Character C / Croker’s fate, while cross-questioning and redirecting his colleague with a quiet authority. Playing the straighter role here, the characterisation could appear fairly one-sided but Radcliffe hints at Bertrand’s discomfort at Morven’s physical proximity when circumstance force them together, but intriguingly feels no similar concern as he daringly hangs from the window-frame to observe Croker.

By contrast Cumming’s Character B / Morven is more highly strung, nervy and easily distracted from his purpose by faulty wiring, the unduly elaborate grammar of witness statements and a notional attraction to Bertrand. Sporting a slightly exaggerated version of his natural Scotch, Cumming squirms and rages, the opposite of Radcliffe’s placidity which ties the two characters inexorably together as they explore the ‘organic waste’ of life. It’s short but filled with meaningful phraseology that references death, how easily life is reduced to accumulated paragraphs of evidence and the implacable nature of fate.


After an interval, Laing’s new set for Endgame marries domesticity with post-apocalyptic doom in a grey walled structure very similar to Soutra Gilmour’s boxy set for Betrayal. The characters are enclosed or, more appropriately, entombed in the room of an empty but still recognisable home with small curtained windows raised high in the wall that gives a basement or prison-feel to the piece while offering plenty of comic potential when these portals to the equally gloomy but unseen exterior are accessed. The room is completed with a central armchair and two steel-grey wheelie bins carved into the stage-front.

Endgame is a strange and difficult absurdist play which runs at approximately 85-minutes as a master and servant play-out what seem to be a repetitive routine while believing their story is soon to end for the last time. There is no plot as such, nor really chapters to mark different stages of the play, so instead Beckett creates a flow of interactions that mix tales of past and present told from the perspective of different characters, while examining the isolation and loneliness that seeks forms of companionship and storytelling as the last refuge of the human condition. What you feel so strongly in this play is how repeated requests for silence and peace are always overcome by the need to interact, to be heard even in the crotchety exchanges between men who have lived together too long.

In this second piece, Jones changes the tone entirely and instantly a pin-drop silence falls over the auditorium as the strangeness of the scenario is felt before it is understood. And across the play there is a cyclical action as the characters explore the connectedness of life and death, with the one naturally leading back to the other. This means that although the chair-bound Hamm and his servant Clov repeatedly express a desire to terminate their mutually-dependent association, they are forever unable to really do so.

A sense of repetition dogs the play from the start as Clov mechanically moves between the windows attempting to draw the curtains while forgetting the stepladder or failing to remember he has performed the task before – an amusing opening that eases the audience into the slightly strange existence of these men. But there is also a feeling of routine, of how frequently the characters have performed the same action or had the same conversation, as if by rote each day. This happens at several points through the stories they tell one another in which endings seem impossible such as the tailor unable to complete a pair of trousers and as Clov wheels his master around the room, bringing scraps of food and amusement.

Time, therefore, punctuates their interaction with Hamm frequently asking whether his ‘pain pills’ are due, knowing when the next chapter of his story is ready to be unveiled and in a more pointed reference to the passing minutes an alarm clock is introduction to signify the end of their time together. Beckett’s love of ambiguity never allows the audience to know whether this is just another day enacting the same unchanging routine or whether their pattern and interaction has degraded over time and is indeed in its final phase. There are multiple suggestions that humanity itself is at an end, with only ‘gloom’ and no living creatures, no sign of nature or climate beyond the walls where impossibility of species regeneration is clear. Jones suggests they could be the last humans alive merely passing the time until the end releases them all for good.

As Hamm, Cumming offers a quite fascinating performance, a character playing a one-sided game of chess in which he will be both the ultimate winner and its loser as he undergoes various changes in mood across the period of the play. Hamm can be many things all at once, charming and likeable, a suggestion of a interesting active life lived long ago, but also demanding, spoiled and entitled, determined to assert his knowing authority over his servant while never wanting to appear at any disadvantage from his inability to walk or see. Cumming plays him almost as a stream of consciousness, a rambling association of stories, demands and thoughts that fluidly shift and expand as he becomes more talkative.

There is also a more existential strand to Hamm, musing on the nature of his life and its meaning that draws out an unexpected softness. There is a subtle fathers and sons theme with Hamm needing the interaction with his father – Nagg (an excellent and meaningful Karl Johnson) – who lives in one of the bins and is enticed out to engage with his son, or more accurately to listen to his speechifying in return for edible rewards. Theirs is a difficult relationship, one which the elder evidently regrets but neither can relinquish. This is given a greater depth when Hamm indicates that Clov is almost a son to him, someone for whom he feels responsibility and even care for a fleeting moment as Cumming introduces plenty of light and shade, finding a softer, needier dimension to Hamm who recognises the necessity of others to his own stability, even if he cannot wholly reconcile or admit those feelings to himself or them.

It is impossible to be anything but impressed by the theatre and film choices that Daniel Radcliffe has made in recent years, and it’s always abundantly clear on stage how hard he works in preparing and exploring his characters. He was excellent – and very funny – as Rosencrantz in 2017, while his Clov here in Endgame is a much more physically demanding role that requires a crooked shape and inability to bend at the knees that affects his walk and posture throughout the play. There is something of the obsequious horror-film butler about Clov, an oddity whose relentless plod and awkward way with a stepladder allows Radcliffe to indulge in some broader comic tics that make his character both strange and sympathetic.

It is also a smart performance, and one that draws out Clov’s growing irritation at Hamm’s demands. The intellectual battles between master and servant are reasonably one-sided and Radcliffe finds all the resentful duty that his character feels in being unable to resist any demands. Yet this Clov also knows there is power in his presence and the threat of removing himself from Hamm is his only means of control, one that grows as Radcliffe’s Clov becomes increasingly frustrated with his own behaviour as the play unfolds. The authoritarian dynamic between them is quite different from Rough for Theatre II, but Radcliffe successfully navigates both in another interesting stage appearance.

Like many Theatre of the Absurd pieces (see also the recent Exit the King), these are not easy plays to navigate and Endgame in particular is a challenging watch. Beckett’s work is largely thematic and not something that prioritises narrative or character development which can be tricky if you’re looking for something with a beginning, middle and an end. While Waiting for Godot is the most performed and influential of Beckett’s plays, Jones’s productions are hugely atmospheric with much to be taken from the strangeness of the settings and fine characterful performances which should please Beckett fans as well as providing plenty of thoughtful material for the journey home. Very interesting place the Old Vic at the moment, and these latest revivals suggest that this theatre is far from entering its endgame.

Endgame and Rough for Theatre II are at the Old Vic until 28 March with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Film Review: Peterloo

Peterloo by Mike Leigh

As we think more carefully about the way we take our rights and freedoms for granted, political representation and the will of the people are topics that rear their head again and again. A hundred years since the campaign for women’s suffrage resulted in partial success, the quest for electoral rights for working men began more than a century before that as post-industrialisation Britain experienced a growth in manufacturing cities and, combined with increased literacy rates, meant the nineteenth-century was characterised by petitions and protests to extend the franchise.

One important step on the road to universal suffrage was arguably the Peterloo “massacre” of 1819 – a peaceful gathering in Manchester, the culmination of a campaign of oratory and political meetings held in the taverns and factories of the industrial north. By no means the first such assembly, and certainly not the last, Peterloo is pivotal because of the panic it created amongst the ruling elite, a panic which meant the local militia shed the blood of its own civilians, killing 15 and injuring over 600 men, women and children. Surprising then that it has taken so long for a single film to be dedicated to this important incident at St Peter’s Field, dubbed “Peterloo” by the media forevermore.

Mike Leigh’s 2.5 hour film which premiered in Manchester as part of the London Film Festival and opens in cinemas on Friday is a multi-stranded exploration of the various lives, professions and tensions that lead into the powder keg that was Peterloo. This should have been a definitive depiction, like Zulu or even Suffragette, the one film that would represent this event on celluloid and raise greater awareness of its importance, but Leigh’s film is too disparate, overlong and definitely overly-earnest, focusing more on generic depictions of working-class life with people peeling potatoes on their doorsteps. Beyond the outrage, rather crucially, it tells us remarkably little about the importance of Peterloo.

As the film opens, a couple of men, a canon and some smoke are an approximation of Waterloo in 1815, from which a single soldier is left standing. We imagine as this red-coated and clearly shell-shocked young man returns home to Lancashire that this will be his story, that we will follow him and his family through a series of events that will culminate at Peterloo four years later. This is only partially true and instead Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, widens his lens to consider some of the factory workers who run political discussion groups, a local newspaper editor, the occasional female emancipation club, musicians, families, local magistrates, the King and orator Henry Hunt who becomes the star attraction.

The downside of this approach, though clearly well researched and scrupulously adhering to the primary sources, creates a laboured story, scenes of working-class life at an almost documentary level without ever drawing them together to make a consistent point about the causes and consequences of Peterloo. There is some wince-inducing dialogue to explain the Corn Laws and Habeas Corpus, and Leigh spends far too long in the build-up – more than two hours of the film – without really generating the kind of combustible tension that is needed to drive the drama. The crucial meeting itself is interesting and very well filmed but confined to about 20 minutes (the alleged time it took for the army to clear the field), much of which are shots of people waiting in anticipation for Hunt to arrive or the in-fighting between the magistrates which leaches tension from proceedings.

When the soldiers eventually arrive and the action sequences begin, they are poignant and brutal, dramatically if not politically satisfying, making-up for much of the film’s slow pace thereto. But in a way the brevity of this moment arguably doesn’t live up to the subsequent tales of slaughter and carnage that history has recorded. Partially this is because Leigh is so heavy-handed in his management of the story, so determined to make a political statement that the early sections are like being spoon-fed castor oil for two hours, you know it’s good for you but you don’t really enjoy it.

While Leigh focuses consistently on the various parties and lives to be affected by Peterloo, there is little overall sense of what it meant, both as a milepost on the way to wider enfranchisement and as a change in the relationships between government and the governed in Britain. Although we are given a clear sense of the politicisation of the working-class on a small scale through the meetings and pamphlets shown in the film, the wider context (other than its proximity to Waterloo in date only) is almost entirely missing, a choice that feels deliberate in order to retain maximum sympathy for the characters Leigh specifically wants us to admire for their self-sacrificing and entirely innocent role in the event.

To attempt to understand something is not at all the same things as excusing it, and we learn nothing about the motivations of the magistrates, army and local government officials who almost inexplicably attack their own people. In reality, the years leading up to the August meeting in St Peter’s Field were full of instability and fear. Napoleon may have been defeated but the long shadow of the French Revolution lingered as our nearest neighbours vacillated between monarchy and various-forms of army-led republicanism. It created a culture of fear within the English ruling-class that contributed to the great nervousness with which the planned arrival of 60,000 people in a confined space was received.

While Leigh’s film goes to great lengths to demonstrate that protesters were unarmed at nothing more than a summer fare – a scenario Hunt insisted on as key speaker – and reflected in the film by an arch rabble-rouser ordering the men to disarm themselves of cudgels and sticks before they march to the assembly, in context, several violent uprisings had occurred in recent times, as well as mill and factory equipment being smashed throughout the north by the Luddites in the years either side of Waterloo, so there was little reason for the authorities to think there wouldn’t be some who could used this meeting to forward a more aggressive agenda.

None of this justifies the events of Peterloo or the unwarranted brutality of the official response, but as vital context it is entirely missing from a film that somewhat extracts it characters from their period, an era in which a loathed Prince Regent was deputising for a mad King, soldiers returned from war expecting reward, and a history of political agitation and public protest was laid out in a relatively newly established newspaper media. Democratic demands began to filter down from the ruling elite, who had enjoyed the public tussles of Charles James Fox and Pitt the Younger, surrounded by their aristocratic celebrity friends just a couple of decades before, to the hard-working men of Manchester and its environs.

By turning away from all of this with cartoonish depictions of the local government and courtly worlds, it drains meaning from the film. Leigh faithfully recreates the events from the perspective of particular groups right down to the small gestures recorded in the primary sources, yet the overall effect is wanting, as though a key piece of the jigsaw is missing. We see plenty of what, but we never see why. This is compounded by the lack of consequences, the movie just ends with injuries and arrests, the carnage of a battlefield mirroring the Waterloo scene at the start, but no on-screen information cards to tell us what happened to the individuals or the cause of electoral reform in the nineteenth-century.

Leigh explained in the ensuing Q&A that this was a purposeful choice so the audience can take any number of meanings from the film, whereas in fact it undermines it at the final moment. As one of the most significant events in working-class history it is vital to know that these events led directly to the formation of the unified political groups of the future including the Chartists whose own six-point manifesto has been the basis of many of our modern electoral rights, but its genesis was among the groups that attended Peterloo. It is also important to recognise that while the franchise was widened for property owning men in 1867 and 1884, it wasn’t until a hundred years after Peterloo that all men and some women could vote. This film not only fails to show us why Peterloo happened, but also why it became such an important marker in government-citizen relations.

The performances are largely good within the fairly two-dimensional parameters of most of the characters, and there are particularly impressive turns from Pearce Quigley as Joseph, a decent working man who fights against his disapproving wife Nellie (Maxine Peake) to stand up for the rights of his family, Philip Jackson as local campaigner John Knight, the ever-entertaining Karl Johnson as the Home Secretary a conduit for news between the protesters and Tim McInnerny’s grotesque Prince Regent. The film really only gets going when Rory Kinnear turns-up as Henry Hunt, a much-needed shot in the arm to plot development and pace. His Macbeth may have lacked danger, but Kinnear has a fantastic time here as the arrogant and charmless orator more in love with his fame and himself than any of the causes he speaks so passionately about. Hunt is the only character permitted shades of grey and despite an ennobled background, he’s clearly on the side of the angles in this production which forgives his failings. Everyone else is basically wholly good or wholly bad or cowardly.

Peterloo has some good sequences and arrives at a well-presented if all too short representation of the event, one which will provoke feelings of outrage and horror at the sight of British soldiers behaving as though there were at war and slicing at their own countrymen as if they were the enemy. For a few minutes, the film’s purpose is crystal clear and there is a visceral sense of the panic, barbarity and shame that the event has caused, earning its place in history. It is such a shame that its preamble is so drawn out and its dramatic structure poorly considered. There was always a good Peterloo film waiting to be made, but this isn’t it.

Peterloo was shown at the London Film Festival and is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 2 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Frankenstein – NT Live

How better to celebrate the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary weekend than by seeing one of its recent runaway successes. Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein is now over two years old but still freshly remembered for its influence on the Olympic Opening Ceremony and most notably for the interchanging performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the role of Frankenstein and the Creature. I didn’t see this at the time, but, having been impressed by the NT Live Macbeth, I thought I’d give it a go.

Let’s deal with a couple of negative bits first. My natural scepticism slightly recoiled from the opening scene as the Creature is ‘born’ and undergoes a Bambi-like evolution from flailing to walking. As a device, it creates instant sympathy for him, but went on a bit too long, and in less competent hands than Cumberbatch would easily be cringeworthy. The supporting cast isn’t up- to-much, apart from the excellent Karl Johnson as the blind man that teaches the Creature about literature and humanity – everyone one else was a bit drama school. I couldn’t decide whether they seemed bad against the quality of acting from Lee Miller and Cumberbatch, or because they were just a bit rubbish – probably both.

I liked Boyle’s design, referencing the mechanical menace of the nineteenth-century whilst being stylistically modern and innovative. The scenes on Lake Geneva and in the hills are some of the best, with clever use of sound throughout which I wouldn’t normally notice. The stage is lit from above by a large wave containing hundreds of small lights which ripple and pulse with life as the atmosphere heightens.

Despite the title, it is the Creature that dominates around 70% of the stage time, and it is an extraordinary performance from Cumberbatch, who I’d thoughtlessly assumed would be better in the other role. His Creature is gentle and erudite, capable of high-minded philosophy that make his acts of brutal violence all the more shocking, especially when they are coldly chosen behaviours rather than unstoppable natural instincts. Cumberbatch spent some time researching the recovery of war and trauma sufferers which adds gravity to his portrayal and never once becomes parodied. Lee Miller’s detached and sometimes arrogant Frankenstein mirrors his creation’s isolation, whilst revelling in his God-like command over life. With no slight on Lee Miller’s performance, the part is a bit underwritten and could have done with more of Frankenstein’s motivation and reasoning, but the scenes between the two leads are intense and brilliantly played.

It took some getting used to but I really enjoyed this play, and it loses little of its power in the cinema-setting. You’ll come away with plenty of questions; you never quite decide which one is truly monstrous and, despite being  about the creation of life,  whether the veneer of civilised society and modes of etiquette just disguise rather than prevent the baser instincts of people to lie, harm and destroy.

Frankenstein is available in cinemas via NT Live – visit the website for dates and venues. Versions are available with both actors in the title roles.

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