Tag Archives: Lyndsey Turner

The Treatment – The Almeida

The Treatment, The Almeida

Life is almost always the basis for art, be it theatre, film or painting, but the finished product often bears little resemblance to the original deed. What happens between the act and the representation of it is a transformation in which reality becomes heightened, frozen and removed from its wider context to give an audience a snapshot of events, a moment in time. The Almeida’s superb revival of The Treatment examines the process of transforming one woman’s story into art – or as one character sees it a “corruption” of truth.

As the play opens, Annie is telling her story to two film ‘facilitators’ Jennifer and Andrew who listen intently, apparently sympathising but occasionally interrupting with their expectations of how the story unfolds – expectations based on their movie-led ideas of drama and plot. Sweet, innocent Anne soon learns that her narrative is no longer her own as she is bombarded with improvements and the unsought attentions of Andrew who claims to have fallen for her instantly. Running in parallel the producers also meet playwright Clifford still trading on a late 60s fame that has long since faded. The story he proposes to them becomes mixed in with Anne’s truth, and as the boundary of art and life begins to fray, both storytellers encounter the bizarre world of the producers, the New York streets and the arrival of Anne’s husband.

First produced at the Royal Court in the 1990s, this assured and fascinating revival feels as relevant now as it must have done 25 years ago as the individual need to be heard has been given fresh life via social media while the unstoppable advance of reality TV imposes a glossy narrative order on the chaotic events of daily life. What is most interesting is the way in which the design creates an unnerving world in which the drab grey-panelled offices of the producers where fantasies are created feels more like real-life than the colour saturated and bizarre external locations around New York. And as Anne becomes more embroiled that distinction is increasingly important, so by the second act, designer Giles Cadle and lighting director Neil Austin have created an increasingly false and unreal visual aesthetic, like a Miles Aldridge photo come to life.

And the tone is equally unsettling; it starts out as a comedy with Indira Varma’s hardnosed producer constantly interrupting Anne’s rather simple story of being held captive, by taking the tale off on elaborate tangents that will make it more sell-able to the film’s audience. We suppress a wry smile and roll our eyes as Jennifer tries to preempt Anne only to be rebuffed by a less glamorous truth, but it says much about us that while we recognise that what we see on screen is a heightened version of reality, Jennifer symbolises our own innate expectation that stories will play-out in a certain way. If a man holds a woman captive and tapes her mouth, it must be for a sexual purpose, and Anne’s insistence to the contrary shows us just how clearly our perceptions of truth have been blurred by film and TV representations of similar incidents, and how frighteningly easy it is to start thinking about these things as clichés.

This seems to be at the crux of Crimp’s play and something that is demonstrated with skillful clarity by The Almeida’s production. If we think of the influence of these fictions on real-life as the blind leading the blind, then the bizarrely wonderful scene in which a sightless taxi driver takes Anne on a journey round New York makes perfect contextual sense. It’s utterly surreal but also a metaphor for what’s happening in the rest of the play where what you think you see and what you really see are not necessarily the same thing.

So, when Anne’s husband Simon (Matthew Needham) comes to find her in the city and encounters writer Clifford (Ian Gelder), it leads him to disparage the arts as the corruption of life, to the point where he doesn’t want to sit in a dark room for two hours and be lied to.  And it’s interesting that this searing analysis comes from the most ordinary person in the play, a man with no link to the glossy world that calls to Anne, but someone able to cut through the pretence with a reasoned and damning condemnation of both the characters and all of us in the audience watching a made-up show about a fantasy world. It’s a light and strange play but one that under the surface has so many things to say about the way we distort reality and use the arts to tell stories.

The performances are uniformly excellent led by Aisling Loftus as Anne, a mouse of woman who despite a girlish reticence that seems her default personality, has a surprising determination to tell her story exactly as it happens, demanding truth in a world of fabrication. Both over-awed by the producers and refusing to be railroaded by them, Anne firmly corrects every attempt to deviate from her tale with a nervous certainty – Loftus showing us that Anne is a raft of contradictions, seduced and repelled by the Hollywood world she is trying to escape to. Her continual confusion is at its best in the growing connection with Andrew as the two a drawn together, but her reserve tethers her to the familiarity of her old life as she faces a choice between true past and fantasy future. Loftus, playing it perfectly straight, gets exactly the right wide-eyed feel that offers many comic and enjoyably bizarre moments.

Equally beguiled by the clash of fantasy and reality is Andrew who falls for Anne’s simple nature and his encounter with her, while initially a trick to win her story, seems to wake him up to the falsity of the life he’s been living. It’s always a treat to see Julian Ovenden on stage and his Andrew is barely readable at the beginning, leaning casually against the wall as Jennifer holds forth, watching and absorbing what’s happening without actively participating. And Ovenden feeds that ambiguity through the performance, never quite sure if Andrew is genuinely taken with Anne or using his allure to make the deal, which adds a touch of danger to proceedings. But whatever his real motive, he is troubled by her presence, and, in a life dominated by other people’s made-up stories, it’s as if he’s been living in a bubble that suddenly bursts, showing him the world as it really is for the first time in years, a confusion which Ovenden navigates superbly.

Equally skilful is Indira Varma’s semi-monstrous Jennifer, who treats her own staff like dirt while stroking the egos of possible clients. Jennifer feels entirely in control of everyone around her, she has a seemingly unassailable power in her office, while knowing how to cajole and manipulate storytellers to deliver the kind of film she knows will sell. There’s very little empathy in her, a brutal business woman thinking about profits and bagging the next big thing, prepared to publicly abuse her staff, but Varma also makes her unexpectedly funny, emphasising Jennifer’s ridiculousness, so lost in the creation of fiction that she has no self-awareness.

There’s also excellent support from several supporting cast members, not least Ian Gelder’s fabulously self-absorbed odd-ball writer who clings to his former grandeur while trying to conceal his desperation, that ends up costing him more than his reputation, and Matthew Needham’s deeply sinister interpretation of Anne’s husband Simon who finds the big city unnerving but thinks it’s perfectly normal to tie his wife to a chair while he’s at work.

It’s all directed with style by Lyndsey Turner, and while there are long scene changes as the audience is shown an increasingly distorted cab ride around New York, it adds to the deliberately disjointed and uncomfortable feel the production strives for. One of the most interesting aspects is the use of layered conversations and at various points two or more separate discussion happen simultaneously, forcing the audience to decide which one they want to tune into. Partly it adds to the confusion but also more accurately reflects the way real speech happens than most stage dialogue.

This revival of the The Treatment is a wonderfully bizarre piece of theatre that has lots to say about the blurring of boundaries between fiction and reality, and the creation of art. In these days of reality TV and fake news it may be increasingly difficult to distinguish between truth and invention but Martin Crimp’s play remains a relevant and enjoyably odd show that reminds us that what we see on screen has been plucked, pulled and ‘treated’ until it barely resembles its original state. Perhaps Simon is right; life itself is fine, it is art that’s corrupt.

The Treatment is at The Almeida until 10 June and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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Hamlet – The Barbican

Is Benedict Cumberbatch the one? This is the question on everyone’s lips at the moment. I am, of course, talking about whether this will be the greatest Hamlet any of us has ever seen, because I’m increasingly coming round to the idea that maybe there’s one perfect Hamlet out there for you and when you’ve found him (or her) then that performance will be the benchmark for every other Hamlet that follows. The Guardian’s eminent theatre critic Michael Billington recently wrote an interesting article suggesting that actors can never fail in their depiction of the character because there is so much scope for individual interpretation which can never be ‘wrong’, but I would take that a step further and say that we as the audience bring our reading of this play along with us, whether we’ve studied it, seen it 100 times or never, at some point an actor’s version and our own will intersect and bam you’ve got your Hamlet.

Without making this sound like an insipid rom-com, you’ll probably only find one ever, maybe two if you’re really lucky. That’s not to say you won’t appreciate, enjoy or love other Hamlets, but deep down somewhere there’ll be only one that really got to you. Mine was David Tennant in 2008, which even 7 years later I can happily gush incessantly about. I’d seen other impressive versions including Alex Jennings and Sam West (both at the Barbican incidentally) but Greg Doran’s 2008 RSC production showed me Hamlet as I had never seen it before, as a thriller, moving at an incredible pace to it’s  inevitable conclusion. I had studied this play for A-level, knew it inside out, yet I was on the edge of my seat almost willing the story to turn out differently. And Tennant was everything I’d ever wanted Hamlet to be, consumed with devastating grief that spoke of so much pain, agonising over life and death, mercurial but turning wonderfully on a hair’s breadth between comedy and tragedy. It was electrifying.

And there have been many other recent Hamlets that may have been the one for you – Rory Kinnear, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Sheen or Ben Whishaw – and these are just the ones since 2000. So, given the openness of the text you pretty much have free reign to like any Hamlet you want if you think the actor brings the right qualities to the role – although honestly if you think Mel Gibson was a perfect Hamlet you should expect exile as minimum punishment. Yet I can’t recall a Hamlet that’s created so much off-stage drama as this new Barbican version; Cumberbatch refusing to sign autographs, critics sneaking in to publish unethical early reviews, rows about fans filming the production, the cost of preview seats – and amid all of this what is really sad is that no one is talking about the work, so let’s do that now.

What everyone really wants to know is how good is Cumberbatch? And the answer is fairly good with potential.  Now I need to caveat this by saying it’s still a preview performance, although it’s now got 10-12 shows under its belt and 20 days of previews is unusual. Not that I knew I was booking a preview a year ago having waiting 3 hours in an online queue of 4000, given just 5 mins to book some seats – back then the press night would not have been set. Anyway, Cumberbatch’s take is an outraged and angry Hamlet, and we first see him sentimentally packing his father’s things suggesting their close connection. This sense of outrage is then fed through the performance which Cumberbatch uses well to make sense of Hamlet’s frustration with his mother, disgust with Claudius and anger at his own failure to act.

The soliloquies have everyone sitting forward in anticipation and Cumberbatch feeds the anger through them so each one builds into a tirade against the circumstances of his life (purists will be delighted to know that ‘To be or not to be’ is back in its proper place). He has to fight against the scale of the set to put across the intimacy of these internal struggles so all credit to him for almost winning that battle, and as the evening draws on his performance grows in confidence. Cumberbatch is particularly adept at drawing out the humour and this is one of the high points. There are still things to work on though, particularly I felt at the beginning where he’s not quite connecting to the depths of grief necessary for the ‘Too, too solid flesh’ speech, and although this is clearly a production choice there’s not quite enough emphasis on the philosophising side of Hamlet, particularly in the early contemplation of life and death, and the later acceptance of fatality. These are things he can quite clearly do as his fantastic lead in After the Dance at the National pre-Sherlockian fame proved, but overall it felt that other decisions in this production somehow mute the depth he was trying to convey and actually do his performance quite a disservice.

Its set in the hall of a large country house with sweeping staircase, littered with paintings and memorabilia that emphasise the military life and country pursuits. Designer Es Devlin has created another beautiful set and while the scale of it may infer the grandeur of court,  it destroys the tension of a small group of people holed up together. It just doesn’t feel claustrophobic enough so you never quite get that sense that events are teetering on a knife’s edge. Lyndsey Turner’s has made the same mistake here that she did in A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, there’s lots of talking but it didn’t feel like it was building to anything. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy so there should be a certain inevitability driving this; from the moment he agrees to act he is doomed, but that over-arching shape to the production, which the director gives, is lacking. So even the final scene felt botched, with all the tension dissipated – as the bodies stacked up it should feel epic but was a garbled rush that was slightly unsatisfactory.

There are several reasons for this, one is that the other characters felt pale and in the background, which is no reflection on the crop of very fine actors here. Lots of the text has been cut so while Polonius is often a viciously controlling, verbose and creepy character, here he just seemed a bit quirky being dispatched before you’d even noticed he was there. It also takes a long time to get insights into Claudius and Gertrude, and until pretty much 2 hours in when they get their own focus. Ciaran Hines is completely compelling in Claudius’s prayer scene to the point you almost sympathise but we’re not seeing that danger early on. Anastasia Hille is very good in the Closet scene which is transposed to the Grand Hallway, as her Gertrude pleads ignorance but the motherly tenderness of concern for her son is not embedded early enough. Similarly there is restraint in the other characters too, including Laertes who reacts to the death of his father and sister with a surprising sense of ‘oh well’ which doesn’t quite align with the later demand for Hamlet’s death. All of these performances could be more colourful, and it seemed liked they’d been asked to hold it back. Maybe they’re saving it for the press but maybe it’s also to ensure the light stays on our star-Hamlet, which is fine but in doing so they give Cumberbatch less to bounce off and less reason for his character’s predicament, thus undermining his deeper portrayal.

This is by no means an awful production and I enjoyed watching what has clearly been designed to be a visual and accessible version of the play. There are also some interesting ideas which made me think, particularly the emphasis on childhood (seen on that cryptic poster) and games demonstrated through Hamlet’s toy soldier fort and the player’s toy theatre onstage. It’s hinting at questions about the infantilization of Hamlet as a character through the close connection with his parents and disgust at his mother’s remarriage. So there is an almost rites of passage element to this where he must pack away childish things and deal with adult themes of murder and lust. I think that’s a really interesting interpretation of the play but there’s only a surface engagement with that at the moment and something that could really set this apart from other productions.

So there you have it, a lot of unrealised potential and some unfortunate directorial choices. Cumberbatch is very good in spite of those choices and it’s clearly a mark of his skill that you can see him fighting to give a deep performance in a stylised and at times superficial production. I almost wanted to lift the entire cast out of this toy theatre and plonk them into another version to let them fully realise all their roles, and I fear that the shape of this production won’t ever let them do that. But I await later reviews eagerly. Perhaps fundamentally the production still needs to position itself on the key questions and even if you decide not to address the politics, or the philosophy of it, the production itself needs to enhance rather than restrain the acting. Is Benedict Cumberbatch the one? Not for me but he will be for lots of people and I hope the rest of the run gives him the space to develop it, he certainly deserves that.

Hamlet is at the Barbican until 31st October. Advanced tickets are sold out but 30 seats at £10 are available each day plus returns so check the website. NT Live will be broadcasting to cinemas on 15 October but best to book now as that is also selling quickly. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire – National Theatre

Well, what a tedious play. How do some playwrights manage to do this, take a great period of history and wring every inch of life out of it to leave a dry and unexciting husk, a pale shadow of what it could have been? A few years ago a play at the Globe had the same effect; it was about Chartists – the nineteenth-century radical group who called for political and educational reform – a really exciting group that fascinated me at school. Yet somehow it was the most mind-numbingly dull three hours I’d ever spent in a theatre and worse had been standing in the pit the whole time, thus I resolved never to stand at the Globe again (just in case). The play was so bad I clearly wiped almost every trace of it from my mind, including the title.

Fast forward a few years and the same thing has happened again in this National Theatre revival of A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Carol Churchill’s 1970s play about radical groups during the English Civil Wars (there were officially two wars with a lull in the middle). The critics have loved it and I have no idea what they’re thinking. I studied this period for A-Level – the extraordinary 15 year personal rule of Charles I, before being forced to recall Parliament in 1640 for money, leading to a couple of years of power play as the two sides wrangled over evil councillors, monarchical privileges, religion and even the attempted (and illegal) arrest of MPs. In 1642 war was declared between the King and his own Parliament, an event of extraordinary significance in British history, which resulted in new forms of warfare and, most divisively, the trial and execution of a divinely-appointed monarch by his own people.

So as you can see exciting stuff. Churchill’s play understandably shies away from the high-level story which has been rehashed many times to focus on the experience of the people who trade one kind of hierarchy for another, and the emergence of radical groups such as the Diggers and Levellers who wanted to create a more equal society based on purer religious lifestyles. There’s no plot exactly, more a series of monologues and debates that consider the rights and freedoms of the individual, all designed to emphasise the timeless disappointments of those who pit themselves against established society. But therein lies its major flaw, without even the slightest narrative drive or rounded characterisation, the endless talking just leaves you cold.

Now, the National’s other philosophical play, Man and Superman, was a joy to watch because there’s enough story to frame the discussions and the whole thing zips along which keeps you entertained throughout. But despite the great design, Churchill’s play fails to create any sense of drama or the danger and excitement of the era. It includes direct extracts from The Putney Debates in 1647 where the New Model Army, fresh from victory over the King, discussed the kind of society they wished to create. It’s a crucial event emphasising the power of the army at this time to determine the future (and the removal of the monarch was by no means inevitable at this stage) as well as the emergence of a more radical spirit among the men who had fought. Yet, the scene was underpowered and failed to convey the passionate beliefs of many of the speakers, the words were there but without feeling. These were men were uniquely positioned to shape Britain’s political and religious future, not the local WI sharing sponge recipes.

In the second act we get a comparative debate scene among some of the people now living freely on the common land who largely debate the possibility of the Second Coming and notions of individual communion with God. Religion was a hugely important element of the Civil Wars particularly Charles I Arminianist or high church views which many feared as a step towards returning to Catholicism, and the imposition of a new prayer book was an important trigger for war. Yet this debate also suffers from a meandering approach and while the mix of characters brought together (ex-soldiers, working men and vagrants) should have made for an interesting look at the consequences of war for the individual, it was as unengaging as the rest. Admittedly by this point I had all but lost the will to live and was cursing myself for not having left at the interval (which I never do) but I’ve rarely seen a show where I cared so little for what was being said or for any of the characters. It’s not really the actor’s fault, apart from the lack of drive they were all emoting and making lots of sincere gestures, but it just didn’t amount to anything.

I think the overall problem here is that the play itself has tried too hard to steer clear of the main political events of these years, but in doing so just doesn’t give enough context or story to sustain momentum for 2 hours. Even me, who knows a fair amount about this period, found it hard going so I can’t imagine how anyone with no idea of the chronology of the wars would get through this. Or perhaps having too much pre-knowledge makes it worse? I knew how exciting and interesting these events should be and could only be disappointed by how utterly tedious this was.

Admittedly the design is good and a lot of critics have praised Es Devlin’s approach – but there’s a case in point, few critics mention the design in their reviews if they’re too busy enthusing about the play and acting! The action takes place on a giant table where the ruling class, comprising the King, lords and clergy are busy feasting while others toil to put food in their mouths. Then, symbolically the table is pulled to pieces to reveal a field of soil and the new ruling class of Puritan scribes take their seats around the edge instead. Although the wage bill for non-speaking parts must be enormous and at times they look like the cast of Les Miserables, it effectively suggests the continuing poverty of the masses regardless of who’s in charge.

This is the sort of play the critics love, they label it ‘challenging’ and ‘undramatic’ to imply some higher form of theatre but actually it just means boring and poorly structured. This completely lacks atmosphere and a proper feeling for the exciting, dangerous and frighteningly uncertain times in which it was set, so I’d save your money. The one thing this play had over my previous bad experience at the Globe – I may have been bored, but at least this time I got to sit down!

A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is at the National Theatre until 22 June. Tickets start at £15.


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