Tag Archives: London

Midnight Your Time and the Cinefication of Theatre

Midnight Your Time - Donmar Warehouse

Theatre has often been quite quick to react to new technologies, with set designers and directors at the forefront of integrating new approaches to staging and visualising a show. For better or worse, the association between theatre, television and film has only grown closer in the last ten years, not just with writers, directors and performers moving between the different genres with increasingly fluidity, but in the adoption of cinematic technique within productions. At a sector level, the influence of NT Live since 2009 has sometimes shaped how a show is put together. You need only look at the abstract way in which Frankenstein was shot to wonder what influence its film director Danny Boyle had on the final screening versions, and while the lure of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet brought the Barbican to a standstill, it was somewhat lost on its cavernous stage, but the production lived for its cinema-relay where the various technical decisions came together more successfully.

The use of video and film technique have also been integrated into the narrative experience  in a variety of ways, either as a means of identifying and recording action taking place “off-stage” or more directly as part of the overall visual design of a show. Ivo van Hove has made it a trademark and, love or hate it, much of his European work and now increasingly his UK output uses camera relay as an integral part of the show’s structure, projecting scrutinising close-ups of his actors even in the hidden crannies of the stage. This was notable in All About Eve where private moments in bathrooms and kitchens, from which other characters were purposefully excluded, were shared with the audience to increase the sense of dramatic irony and the notion of permanent performance which its group of creatives were experiencing. In Network at the National Theatre, van Hove had his actors begin a scene outside on the Southbank, live-streaming their arrival at the fictional TV studio where footage and the relationship between presenter and viewer was crucial. Even the more controversial Obsession – which is van Hove’s most European show to date – used its film noir ancestry to create an abstract, screen-filled experience.

But there are other kinds of show that have used film techniques for specific directorial and design effects as well as for driving narrative decisions. In 2016, Robert Icke’s superb adaptation of The Red Barn at the National Theatre adopted some of the split-screen approaches, used extensively in the 1960s, to build tension in a flowing murder mystery. Icke played with the proportions of the stage and seamlessly created window blocks to change the scale and visual impact of the action. Creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul went a step further in Dear Evan Hansen  – the first musical to fully embrace and reflect the social media age – which opened in London last November, and created a stage filled with social media feeds that run continuously throughout the show as Twitter, Instagram and Youtube content became the context and the cause of the story.

And here we are at another moment of significant change where filmic content has been the major solution for an industry desperate to sustain engagement with its existing and new theatre audiences, as well as diversifying income streams during the lockdown. Previous productions recorded live and offered for free by the National Theatre at Home initiative have been so successful that more and more theatres have started to offer archived content with The Old Vic the latest to announce its own streaming channel from June. Prepared to “give back” at a time of crisis, content created for cinema screening and / or recorded using its techniques may yet be the saving grace of the theatre industry.

In a few cases, film and video-based platforms have also facilitated the recording and sharing of brand new material. Increasingly Zoom and other similar communication channels are been used to performed Shakespeare plays or musical theatre tribute concerts. Whether we openly recognise it, these are still cinematic experiences, ones watched on a screen, often with directorial consideration of camera placement, shot selection and cut decisions that pre-plan / rehearse how plays will be presented when they appear on audience laptops, smart phones and televisions.

All of this brings us to Midnight Your Time, a 30-minute play written in 2011 by Adam Brace and performed at the High Tide Festival by Diana Quick who stars in the Donmar Warehouse’s revival under the leadership of her director then and now, Michael Longhurst. Nine years ago, the staging took the Ivo van Hove route, projecting protagonist Judy’s image on a screen above the actor during a series of one-sided video calls. In 2020, Longhurst utilises the tools of film editing to transpose the entire production into Judy’s screen so the audience sees the show from unseen daughter Helen’s perspective as message after revealing message is recorded.

The video-based calling platforms have become all too familiar to many of us in recent weeks and whether it’s Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype or seemingly endless others, these have been our primary means of communication with friends, family and colleagues since lockdown began. So it’s with a certain weary glee that Midnight Your Time reflects our current experience back at us, without altering the very specific era and political context of the show which begins in the small hours of New Year’s Day 2010.

Longhurst’s production is a series of short ‘scenes’, each one a separate video message the despairing Judy sends to her unresponsive daughter over a period of months. The premise and the building drama of the show depends on the protagonist’s interaction with the video call platform and its functionality which allows her to record messages for the recipient, as well as the option to delete and reconstruct the conversation she wishes to have.

This becomes particularly important as the truth about this mother-daughter relationship slowly emerges, and as Brace conversationally drip-feeds information – a hint of a past row here, the growing resentment of unreturned calls there – Longhurst uses a series of quick cuts to indicate conversations happening in a compressed time frame to reflect Judy’s optimistic, concessionary mood at the beginning of the play, or, more dramatically, in a late night scene in which she repeatedly lets her temper get the better of her and has to revise her message – the screen equivalent of throwing balled-up letters over her shoulder.

The staging of this extended monologue is both casual and remarkably formal, filmed in different rooms of Quick’s house – a decision that seems to be more than one of sheer variety – feeding directly into the two halves of Judy’s personality that so distinctly emerge as the narrative unfolds. In the welcoming warmth of the clean kitchen, the audience learns of Judy’s day-to-day activities, her legal training, involvement in a women’s peace organisation and the succession of middle-class parties and dinners that comprise her social activity. The bright lighting and position of the camera, revealing a particular kind of lifestyle.

The contrast in the more emotional scenes is notable and fascinating. Set either in the plush bedroom or living room, the curtains are always drawn, the light is limited and filming seems to take place at an entirely different time of day. While the audience is invited into these other rooms of the house, there is something incredible personal and almost voyeuristic about the result as Judy’s emotional, and sometimes physical, disorder exudes from these shots, private moments of revelation, of alcoholic dishevelment and guilt that seem to spring from the cosy backdrop.

And this awareness of the camera, it’s ability to pick-up on the subtext within the play and extrapolate much through the social environment is just as essential to Quick’s performance. It may seem particularly obvious to note that this is a play in which the camera is the key means of communication, but acting to camera requires a different calibration than stage acting which changes the scale of facial movements and physical gestures. Look at Sea Wall briefly made available on Youtube last week in which Andrew Scott’s performance has an extraordinary understanding of how to elicit maxim pathos and drama from a fixed-position camera.

Unlike on stage, only Judy’s head and shoulders are visible, very rarely do we see her entire body and the audience must rely on Quick to deliver a series of social cues that reveal everything about her state of mind. In moments of confidence she leans happily back in her chair, her make-up, hair and outfit purposefully designed to show Judy in her most level and public state – something all of us will recognise as we ‘dress’ for calls.  At her most vulnerable, she slumps defeated or leans close to the camera, pleading with her daughter to notice and respond to her entreaties, which only enhances the visual effect of her disordered hair and broken expression.

The relatively short scene structure that Brace has put in place, and from which Longhurst elicits such nuance, also uses the camera to create another interesting facet to this production, that of narrative unreliability. The audience initially is asked to empathise with Judy, a mother persistently trying to contact her feckless daughter, but as the story unfolds the changing locations and style call into question Judy’s motives by slowly revealing a controlling and potentially offensive authoritarianism that rankles with her silent daughter as clearly as it seems to with her charity colleagues and neighbours. Quick and Longhurst uses performance, shot design and direction to slowly shift the balance, helping the viewer to wonder whose side we should really be on.

After lockdown, there are valid concerns that new voices may be swallowed up in the desire to programme safely or that only the larger commercial auditoriums will still be there when theatre’s re-emerge. Yet this confining period is giving the industry plenty of food for thought and conversations abound about how the sector might look when venues reopen, this is a moment for re-evaluation from which all kinds of innovation could come. And, there is no doubting that the links between theatre and film, so vital to the sustenance of community in recent months, will only strengthen. How the semi-improvised simplicity of Zoom Shakespeare or the screen-based interactions that have become our main point of contact with the world will eventually impact the stage remains to be seen, but the recording and sharing of the live theatre experience is surely changed forever.

Midnight Your Time is available on the Donmar Warehouse website until 20th May. 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.

Frankenstein

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


One Man, Two Guvnors – National Theatre at Home

One Man, Two Guvnors - National Theatre At Home

In the past 11 years the way we engage with and consume theatre has changed, thanks in large part to the efforts of National Theatre Live, launched in 2009 to beam productions to cinemas around the world allowing far wider access to (largely) London’s best shows. In what has been nothing short of a revolution in how organisations engage with audiences and,with several live screenings each year capturing the very best theatre has to offer, millions of people have been able to enjoy performances they would otherwise never have seen due to geographical or financial restrictions. As opera, dance and all kinds of theatre took steps to increase their filmed offerings, every screening has become an ‘event’, creating a substantial community of people dedicated to creating and watching arts content for the price of a cinema ticket.

It has been a significant development, and for £20-£25, which would buy you a restricted and likely distant view in a West End theatre, cinema-goers have a perspective better even than the front row because in its decade-long history, the skills of the NT Live camera crew and directors has made watching each production an intimate and cinematic experience while never losing the excitement of live theatre. It’s never quite the same as being in the room with the actors but there has been a huge development in the filming process, expertly using wide screen shots to show the whole stage, mixed with the intimacy of tighter frames and quick cuts to reflect the emotional and psychological tension within a play. Anyone who saw the recent live screening of Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac will appreciate how skillfully the NT Live team plotted the technical set-up of the shoot to capture the vibrancy and intimacy of the production which fizzed beautifully from the screen – and if anyone ever doubted that a cinema relay could even minutely reflect the intensity of the room, the long, slow intimacy of that close-up as James McAvoy delivered Cyrano’s great monologue had hearts beating wildly up and down the country.

The point is that the National Theatre has been at the vanguard of community outreach for a long time, and while some of its scheduling choices have come under fire in recent years and its London-centric approach criticised – and any national institution should rightly and publicly be held to account – the temporary creation of National Theatre at Home is a savvy, meaningful and entirely welcome contribution to the development of a remote community at a time of crisis. There is a lot of theatre available to stream, many Companies are generously making vintage shows available for short periods but with all its PR resources the National Theatre is creating a lockdown event, encouraging viewers to sit down at 7pm every Thursday to watch one of its archive productions as it first airs. Alone together last week around 200,000 people did just that, rising to almost a million by lunchtime on Friday – and potentially far more if multiple people are gathered round the screen.

The first show in the National Theatre at Home programme was the 2011 smash-hit One Man, Two Guvnors, one of the great success stories of the Nicholas Hytner era, a cheeky farce written by Richard Bean and starring National Theatre favourites James Corden and Oliver Chris. On its initial release, the show enjoyed a run in the Lyttleton before a West End transfer which ran for three years, a Broadway run and three UK tours, plus an international production that went to Hong Kong and Australia. As one of the National Theatre’s most successful and much-loved shows, One Man, Two Guvnors is a superb choice to lift a nation’s spirits, and even watching alone knowing that hundreds of thousands of others were doing the same felt significant. And it’s the first time we’ve all really laughed in weeks. If you’ve never seen it before, then you are in for a treat.

Set in 1960s Brighton, Bean’s play with music is as superb an example of brilliantly plotted and executed farce as you will ever see. Something that looks this light and effortlessly silly on the surface is incredibly sophisticated and technical to create. The mixture of word play and physical humour is complicated and there are moments when jokes come at a quick fire pace or when one piece of slapstick leads to another and then another in a rolling effect that requires everyone to be exactly in the right place without making any of it feel contrived or overly rehearsed which this production achieved with astonishing precision while retaining the freshness of each comic scenario.

The plot is classic farce, utlising mistaken identity, twins and disguises to ingenious effect while three sets of apparently unrelated characters create havoc for lead Francis Henshall who is pulled in various directions when he ends-up working for two bosses at the same time. But while Bean employs a lot of the techniques of the genre, he uses them in unexpected ways and often what seem like obvious set-ups such as money given to the wrong employer or the physical consumption of a crucial letter which should result in eventual confrontation and exposure for Francis, are used almost like red herrings, resolved (or forgotten) quickly with little consequence. The result is to keep the audience on their toes, diverting us away from the lazy cliche which may cause our attention to wander and instead using the comedy set-up to unexpected effect.

The great set-piece of One Man, Two Guvnors comes at the end of Act One as inside The Cricketers pub where both Guvnors Stanley Stubbers and Roscoe Crabbe are staying, the hungry Francis is required to serve them both a multi-course lunch with the help of a decrepit and unsteady waiter on his first day in the job (think Victoria Wood “Two Soups” sketch). With room mix-ups, food arrivals being dashed between the diners while being siphoned off by Francis for himself, some terrified audience participation and plenty of examples of the waiter being hit by doors and falling down the stairs, this scene is a comic delight and absolute nothing to do with the plot. It’s a clever choice by Bean, deciding to include a lengthy segment that doesn’t advance the story but gives insight into the burden on Francis, and the play’s chance to include a scene that is just funny purely for its own sake, beautifully pitched by the cast – and if you worry for the poor lady dragged out of the front row, take a look at everyone in the curtain call and rest easy.

And there is added joy for theatre-lovers in Bean’s writing that sets this show above the average, with plenty of references to other writers and styles that add an extra dimension to the humour. The structure borrows much from Shakespeare comedies of course using twins and gender disguises to fool other characters, while the inclusion of asides to the audience which both Francis and Dolly use to great effect creates a sense of confederacy with the viewer, as well as plenty of meta ad libbing as a houmous sandwich offered by a man in the third row threatens to ruin everything.

Surprisingly there is a touch of Pinter too, a low-level hint of menace as Roscoe brings London’s 1960s East End gangsters to Brighton to frighten Charlie Clench as various degrees of powerful men try to intimidate each other to receive money owed with threats of violence that drives the plot. The contrasting seediness of this behaviour in the seaside setting is also very Pinteresque, redolent of the coastal boarding house of The Birthday Party, while one of the finest jokes references Chekhov’s The Seagull. There is a confidence in how seamlessly these influences fit into what is entirely a comic play, demonstrating Bean’s skill as a writer in creating larger-than-life-scenarios while acknowledge a debt to key theatre practitioners.

Designed by Mark Thompson this is a cartoon version of the 60s that suits the quirky style of the humour, lots of purposefully unreal looking flats painted to look like houses, pubs and a backdrop seaside vista complete with illustrated pier, while the interior of Charlie Clench’s house where several scenes are set is a homage to big prints and homely furnishings, all of which look just as wonderfully quirky and hyper-real onscreen. Director Nicholas Hytner keeps things flowing brilliantly and the 2 hours and 40 minutes of this production fly by, it’s 90-minutes before the interval (edited out of this National Theatre At Home version) and you won’t even notice you’re having so much fun. Scene changes are masked by a dropped curtain and a faux skiffle band called ‘The Craze’ with original and period-appropriate songs written, composed and performed by Grant Olding, along with band mates Philip James, Richard Coughlan and Ben Brooker which add to the 60s atmosphere. In the second half, these are enhanced and varied when the cast join in with steel drums, a girl group and even a horn-playing Oliver Chris.

As Francis, James Corden gives one of his best performances, managing the elements of the farce with ease while making it seem as though the story is unfolding naturally, especially enhanced by the odd ad lib as Corden reacts to audience interaction and tries not to laugh at fellow cast members. His Francis is a little weaselly initially as an opportunity to make double money drops in his lap, but there’s an everyman quality that brings the audience onside as the comic effects become increasingly ridiculous. Full of charm, Corden bewitches audiences in the room and at home as we hope for a happy ending all round.

The supporting roles are delivered with equal verve; Oliver Chris is every second a joy as the boarding school posh boy on the run, a big exuberant performance that mines a rich seam of comedy that has a sitcom silliness to the delivery (and how sad that his new play Jack Absolute Flies Again has to be postponed); Jemima Rooper as the disguised Roscoe / Rachel has tons of fun switching between gender characteristics while producing some genuine threat; Suzie Toase as love interest Dolly is a whip smart bookkeeper who knows how to manage her life and her man, while Daniel Rigby as aspiring actor Alan, Claire Lams as his permanently vacant fiancee Pauline and Fred Ridgeway as her father Charlie add plenty of extra dimension to the wonderful nonsense of the play.

The energy of this 2011 production carries to the screen so well and with four more days to see it on the National Theatre at Home Youtube Channel this is the injection of pure joy we all need right now. The NT has some absolutely stellar productions in its archive and it will be interesting to see if some of those filmed elsewhere will also feature depending how long the lockdown continues – Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus at the Donmar was exemplary, as was Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire both produced by the Young Vic. With three further productions announced, Jane Eyre from Thursday at 7pm, followed by Treasure Island and Twelfth Night on successive weeks, this inaugural home screening has been a communal gift to the nation, event theatre lives on!

One Man, Two Guvnors is available to watch for free via National Theatre at Home until 7pm on Thursday 9 April, when it will be replaced with Jane Eyre. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


New Perspectives on Chekhov: A Three Play Analysis

Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and Three Sisters

The new decade has brought us many unexpected challenges, panic buying across the country, a global pandemic that will last many months and, in the last two weeks, a consequential redefining of all our social and business interactions. But some changes have been for the better and this year three overlapping Chekhov productions have started to redefine the audiences’ relationship with a playwright whose work has been, at best, challenging. Three Sisters at the National Theatre, Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter and The Seagull at the Playhouse Theatre have all taken very different approaches to reworking Chekhov all with considerable success, together creating insight into a writer whose emotional and psychological brilliance has often been subverted for visual accuracy.

Each of these productions has taken a very different approach; Three Sisters adapted by Inua Ellams relocated Chekhov’s drama to the Biafran war in the 1960s, Conor McPherson’s Uncle Vanya remained within the limits of a nineteenth-century pseudo-Russian location, while The Seagull took a timeless approach of modern dress and minimal scenery. Yet, together these productions have much in common, sweeping away the overly didactic and weighty nature of costume drama to focus on the relationships between characters and the driving energy of the text, resulting in a more comprehensive understanding of Chekhov’s major plays that brings fresh insight and relevance to a writer whose plays have often felt rather dry.

Location and Staging

Location is extremely important to Chekhov with the three plays in question all taking place on a country estate among largely middle-class landowning people all desperate to be anywhere else. But in imagining these locations for the stage, most earlier approaches have adopted very similar themes, placing the characters in wooden rooms that reflect the shabby gentility of their rural settings with limited access to the outside world and heavy furniture that almost always includes a rocking chair – this visual shorthand has been consistent across UK and international productions from Russian and Eastern Europe that have regularly visited the capital. This attempt to preserve Chekhov in a pseudo-Russian aspic has reduced his plays to melodramatic agri-dramas where farming equipment and techniques have taken precedence over family and story.

Ellams took the most radical approach to location by moving his version of Three Sisters, directed by Nadia Fall, away from the nineteenth-century to demonstrated how readily Chekhov’s emotional perspective and understanding of human nature grafts onto an entirely different era and continent. The context of 1960s war in Africa was outstandingly realised by designer Katrina Lindsay who created a beautiful and chic villa in woods and reeds that dominated the lengthy Lyttelton Stage. A far cry from the drab wooden interiors of previous productions, this rotating house became a sanctuary as the Nigerian Civil War raged outside, emphasising so clearly characters’ attachment to home, place and memory in physical form.

Compare this to designer Rae Smith’s semi-traditional approach to Uncle Vanya that stayed within the confines of the nineteenth-century but broke free of earlier styles with a painterly vision that felt rich in tone and texture. Set in a single well lived in room and directed with sensitivity by Ian Rickson, Smith’s design eschewed the bland wood for a more tumbledown approach, a fading manor house filled with objects from family life overflowing from every shelf bordered by a forest visible through the large windows that cast light across the room as beautifully as a Vermeer painting. Somehow in this still traditional but more open environment, the humour and emotional interior of the characters was freed-up and allowed to fill the large room across four Acts of this Olivier-nominated drama.

Soutra Gilmour’s set for The Seagull is quite different again but has the same effect of clearing the cobwebs of traditional location to focus on the emotional and psychological interaction between the cast. Using a chipboard box, a single table and a set of plastic chairs, there is nothing that visually indicates time, place or era. The actors are dressed in modern everyday clothes that look like their own, with no attempt to create anything as false as a set of ‘costumes’, nothing implies the magical landscape of lake and stars that grounds the play in its very particular setting and so potently affects the characters’ romantic impulses. But the effect is the opposite, and like Smith and Fall, Gilmour has created a blank canvas upon which the real meaning of Chekhov’s text is finally released from the trappings of nineteenth-century dresses and claustrophobically designed rooms.

Character Psychology

The characters in each of these three plays are trapped – a Chekovian standard – not just physically unable to leave their location due to war, pecuniary distress or as for Irina in The Seagull the failures of a limited ferry service, but also in emotional holding-patterns which the activity of the play temporarily releases before returning them to their original state, often no better and sometimes only a little worse for their temporary engagement with the wider world. These events are by their nature tragic in the lives of the individual but are often hard to connect with as an audience member, with translations and directional choices unable to help the viewer navigate a series of events to the beating heart of the work.

The three plays presented so far this year have changed that, pulling down the wall between setting and meaning that has proved illuminating in terms of textual excavation. Uncle Vanya has achieved this most successfully within its traditionalist approach by drawing out a new humour in Conor McPherson’s translation that humanised the familiar interactions between siblings, family and neighbours and brought the audience more effectively into the story than ever before. The caustic and sometimes ridiculous relationship between Toby Jones’s Vanya and Ciaran Hinds’s pompous Professor became a fascinating clash of education, ambition and long-held rivalry for attention that spoke volumes about the long-term frustrations bubbling beneath the surface of the siblings, while the romantic yearning Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya expressed for Doctor Astrov was shown through age and attitude to be entirely one-sided, almost (but not quite) comic in its unlikeliness but nonetheless meaningful for a young woman with little hope of finding happiness or choice.

Ellams adaptation of Three Sisters focused far more on the ennui of confinement and while war raged a few miles away, the constricted sisters are in some ways a stage beyond the inhabitants of Vanya’s farm, their choices made, embedded and cannot be undone whether through unequal marriage as for Natalie Simpson’s Nne Chukwu (the reworked Masha) or desperation for status and recognition as sister-in-law Ronke Adékoluejo found which they must now try to bear. It was an adaptation that emphasised male character purpose bringing the notions of the military and domestic together but it well balanced the competing forces that drive individual personalities including the need to perform specific gender roles, to feel love or need from another person and, again, the strength of family ties to hold things together when all other hope or normalcy is gone.

The Seagull is a far more openly romantic play that either of the other productions which Anya Reiss’s new version drew particular attention to as characters actively sacrifice themselves to destructive forms of love with little regard for the consequences. This approach hones in on the numerous romantic entanglements in the play and exposes the duel excitement and pain they cause for characters such as Tamsin Outhwaite’s Polina, who like Nne / Masha in Three Sisters is caught in a loveless marriage and clings only to a passion for another as her only sustenance. There is a sense in Reiss’s text of how the naivety of early infatuation is cruelly exposed to harm, and we see through Emilia Clarke’s Nina the downward spiral this creates for a woman reduced and tainted by the societal consequences of unguarded passion, while Daniel Monks’s full-bloodied Konstantin is bent on self-destruction when his unrequited love for Nina takes its inevitable course. In all of these adaptations, it is the richness of this multi-character psychology that has more fully allowed the audience to see beneath the period surface of Chekhov’s work and finally feel its range and human depth.

Finding Comedy and Tragedy in Chekhov

Chekhov has rarely been celebrated as a humorist and while he subtly mocks the stiff social conventions that have so often been a feature of adaptations, this new raft of productions have showcased a breadth and depth in his writing that has warmed each of the theatres they have appeared in. Bloated pomposity and ego have been beautifully skewered whether manifest as The Professor in Uncle Vanya or the serious military men buzzing around the Nigeria home of the Three Sisters, we are finally seeing Chekhov’s skill with irony and caricature as he uses these gatherings of overly-familiar groups to draw out the silliness of human interaction and the nonsense of the modes of politeness that underpin class and tradition.

But by clinging to such expectations, none of Chekhov’s characters are allowed to escape tragedy, not tragedy on the grand scale which brings universal death and destruction, but what Chekhov is doing is exposing the tiny tragedies in everyday life that will leave his characters no better placed at the end of the play than at the beginning, that going through the clash of personal and external which each character represents will not ultimately save or change them. These recent productions have conveyed this so well as Richard Armitage’s superb Doctor Astrov opens his heart much as Clarke’s Nina or Simpson’s Nne Chukwu do to a doomed passion that temporarily erupts which must be internalised, repacked and restrained by the end of the play, returning each of these characters to lonely isolation and emotional sterility. In all three of these performances Chekhov’s understanding and charting of how people must survive when all hope is extinguished has been extremely moving.

And although Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull have taken quite different approaches to presenting and elucidating Chekhov’s themes there is a consistency in the way these Directors and their teams have mined the text to more fully understand the psychological drivers within the community of characters Chekhov employs to focus not just on the foregrounded individuals but those who comprise the wider context and how together they are all helping to make each other miserable. All of this is resulting in an exceptionally insightful period of shows that are unveiling a playwright whose work has that timeless and universal quality so redolent of theatre classics, easily transposed to different eras, contexts and situations while still yielding considerable meaning for an audience. As our theatres recover in the coming months let us hope for less period woodwork and far more heart and humour because Chekhov’s secrets are finally emerging.

Uncle Vanya was due to play until 2 May and The Seagull until 30 May. Three Sisters ended in February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Seagull – Playhouse Theatre

The Seagull - Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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