Tag Archives: Matthew Needham

Othello – Drama on 3

Othello - Drama on 3

Amidst the panic of theatre closures and the wonderful avalanche of classic shows being made available to watch online, a major repository of drama has been missed, one that continues to premiere brand new performances and adaptations of well-known plays every week while enticing some of our best-loved stage stars to appear in them. Like other kinds of theatre it requires technical and artistic direction as well as a creative team to help the audience to visualise the setting and contextualise the characters, and, in perfect compliance with lockdown rules, you don’t even need to leave the house. Where are all these wonderful new productions – they’re on the radio.

Radio drama is the forgotten cousin of the stage, and while millions tune in regularly, the vast majority of theatre fans barely know its there. Within the theatre echo chamber, when was the last time you saw someone tweet about a fantastic radio play or, excluding a couple of new lockdown evens, see coverage of upcoming airings in a theatre newsletter? And apart from the announced (and much promoted) premiere of The Understudy in two parts next month, when is radio drama ever considered a “must-listen” event, it doesn’t even warrant critical review.

Yet, every week some of the UK’s finest acting talent, whether up-and-coming early career performers or well established titans, appear on the airwaves and its all completely free. In this drought of live theatre when full-length productions are being streamed on Youtube or uploaded to the BBC iPlayer, why isn’t radio part of the conversation, because if you want your fix of new drama then all you have to do is tune in.

Perhaps it is partly because radio plays have a slightly undeserved reputation for being (ironically) too “stagey”, over-emphatic actors trying to do too much with their voice and creating a false sounding effect in which the rhythms of natural speech become stilted when there are no visual clues to bound reactions and characterisation. Yet, while we’ve been running to the West End and other spaces for core interpretations of major plays, radio stations have been stealing a march on physical theatre with some top quality productions. Some of the standout interpretations of recent years include John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger with David Tennant, Nancy Caroll and Daniel Evans (2016) and a stunning A Streetcar Named Desire from 2017 with Anne Marie Duff , John Heffernan and Matthew Needham which was recently repeated. While only yesterday a new version of Henry IV – Part One with Iain Glenn, Toby Jones and Luke Thompson aired on Radio 3, a lockdown treat with some of our finest stage performers.

Last week, Drama on 3 also premiered a new Othello, slimmed to two hours by director Emma Harding and relocated to the near future where Turkey threatens to invade Cyprus. Against this reconsidered backdrop, Harding was keen to explore how the play’s concept of “otherness”, that dogs Othello’s acceptance and integration through the story, links to what may once have been a Muslim faith. A converted Christian in the play, there is little to indicate who Othello was before we meet him, but it is an interesting hook for a story familiar through recent stage productions including the National Theatre’s 2013 version with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear and The Globe’s 2018 attempt with Mark Rylance and Andre Holland.

Atmospherically enhanced by music between the scenes, the subtly of Harding’s approach keeps Othello himself slightly beyond the other characters, a man whose religious and cultural background may have more in common with his enemies than his Venetian comrades. At heart Othello, like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, reflects on the politics of power as its central character – the villainous Iago – seeks revenge after being overlooked for promotion. The military, social and religious themes within the play flow from and into Iago’s plot to drive a wedge between Othello and his wife, while raising suspicion about “the Moor’s” judgement and appropriateness for office as Iago goads the extremes of his jealously and temper.

Harding never forgets this and in the shortened radio format, vividly emphasises how duplicitously Othello’s reason is first isolated and then undermined, giving a driving inevitability to the panic and anger that result in the play’s multiple and quick-fire deaths. It creates a great deal of momentum in this production in which the initial lie escalates very quickly, allowing the audience to see how disbelief and dismissal translate so purposefully into despair and fury as Iago separates and then carefully controls the flow of information around the Cypriot base.

Harding’s key achievement here is in skillfully creating the context in which the action takes place, which, with no visual clues or effects to rely on, must emerge entirely from the technical application of sound design as well as the tone and atmosphere developed through the performances and how they are recorded. There is considerable sophistication in the way audio effects are integrated into the production to prompt the audience’s imagination as the sound of busy Venetian streets and the babble of people living in close quarters flesh-out the physical world in which the action takes place. Unlike theatre, radio must inspire rather than proscribe, forcing the audience to conjure every scene and character in their own minds led by the judicious application of these effects. And throughout this honed two-hour piece, you are transported to the changing locations through sound and voice, allowing the listener to focus on the developing drama and visualise the interactions more easily.

This is, for the most part, a softly-spoken version of the play, one in which the air of secrecy creates an intimacy between the audience and Iago especially as his stratagems are outlined with a whispering intensity. Harding generates considerable tension by focusing on the ferocity of Iago’s anger distilled as a patient and pantherous stalking of his prey. And while most of the soliloquies are needfully cut to bring this to two hours, the attention to character development and purpose still makes sense of Shakespeare’s characters, creating an intimate confederacy with the audience.

Matthew Needham has developed quite a portfolio of interesting projects in the last few years but is probably best known for his lonely self-destructive doctor in Rebecca Frecknall’s glorious revival of Summer and Smoke at the Almeida and Duke of York’s. Continuing the Williams theme, prior to this his performance as Stanley in Drama on 3’s A Streecar Named Desire (sadly not currently available) was outstanding, using vocal variation to imply the strutting masculinity and brute strength of a Stanley you couldn’t see while vividly drawing-out the character’s sensitivity and bristling sexuality, devotion to his wife and social status. That ability to give his creation a solid physicality and dimensional shape using only Williams’s dialogue was fascinating in what was a high-quality drama across the board. Casting Needham as Iago is, then, a canny decision, one that is fundamental to the success of this Othello.

Iago is a political creature willing to go to considerable lengths to achieve his ends. Needham’s interpretation has a restrained charm, inveigling his way into Othello’s favour all the while manipulating events with an air of perfect innocence. In the tense and suspicious climate that Harding has created, it is all too easy for Needham’s Iago to disrupt the harmony of the military base, telling tales to different comrades that they instantly believe through his remarkably successful divide and conquer strategy. The appearance of credibility, Needham suggests, makes sense of Othello, Roderigo and Cassio’s readiness to trust and rely on him, little knowing that pulling their strings serves his own wider purpose.

It is an absorbing performance, supported by the proximity of those low-voiced monologues which Iago shares just with the audience and only on the radio does a greater rapport with the listener emerge, as though Needham’s hushed tones are poured directly into your ear in a bond of allegiance between you and him alone. He is dangerous too and while there is little suggestion of physical strength, instead the ruthlessness of the character is foregrounded, the willingness to use any means at his disposal to manufacture Othello’s suffering with little regard for the consequences. The final moments of the play in which Othello instigates his tragic revenge are enhanced by the qualities of this Iago, and how carefully Needham has primed the audience for the lovers’ confrontation. If you were disappointed by Mark Rylance’s larkey approach, then Needham’s chilling creation is a great antidote.

Khalid Abdalla’s Othello draws from this culture of suspicion and secrecy that Harding creates, charting the progress of a military leader returning in triumph with his new wife and the world at his feet to a paranoid and distrustful man. The way in which Abdalla sheds the protective armor of role and status to reveal the scarred and frightened humanity underneath is really well achieved using the tone and level of his voice to convey Othello’s growing distress. Later, as that turns to anger, the tragic conclusive scene is grippingly played as Abdalla’s Othello builds tension though the vocal performance, suggesting how completely his mind has been irrationally poisoned by jealousy, but also what an intimidating warrior he still is, before regret and shame consume his final moments in what is a layered and enjoyably rich performance.

There is some great support from the female roles as well with Cassie Layton’s bewildered Desdemona suggesting equality in her marriage in the early scenes and, while still an innocent victim of Iago’s trick, pleads with determination and calm surety when faced with her husband’s groundless accusations. Likewise, Bettrys Jones’s Emilia is a more powerful force in the play than often seen, devoted to her mistress and proving her worth in the closing scene as she forcibly berates Othello. She is also entirely unaware of her husband Iago’s treachery and the deception implied in Jones’s performance ties neatly into Harding’s overarching approach, emphasing  the role of Iago in destabilising this group of people to create a culture in which marital deception – or the assumption of it – becomes the norm.

Some of the very best versions of Shakespeare’s plays are also the simplest, letting the rhythm of the language, its imagery and pscyhological construction guide the forward motion of the drama. And with only voices and sound, where better than the radio to stage this well considered adaptation that allows the listener to focus on writing and characterisation. Harding’s original intention to consider the clash of socio-religious culture doesn’t get as much attention as it needs, atlhough it is a interesting interpretation, but when Iago’s plot takes hold, the play develops a momentum of its own. With new and archive classics available online, it’s time for BBC Radio radio drama to stop being so modest because, with fresh adaptations and some of our greatest acting talent already onboard, it has much to contribute to our ongoing thirst for theatre.

Othello is free to stream via BBC Sounds for at least a year. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Summer and Smoke – Almeida Theatre

Summer and Smoke, Almeida Theatre

This time last year, the Almeida was in the middle of a purple patch, one that would produce a successive run of West End transfers with Mary Stuart, Hamlet and Ink all quickly secured hugely successful extensions. Now, their new production of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams once again reminds larger theatres of the power of this small Islington venue; it’s ability not just to attract emerging talent among a pool of actors, writers and directors, but also to reimagine classic plays as fresh and invigorating stories for modern audiences.

Unlike last year’s Young Vic production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Benedict Andrews, which proved to be a “cold seduction” where nudity became a rather insubstantial substitute for chemistry, the Almeida’s interpretation of Summer and Smoke creates an astonishing balance of emotional fragility and electrifying sensual charge. Williams’s work is largely associated with these ideas of repressed or frustrated sexuality that struggles to break free during the course of the play, but he also writes sensitively about the tender pain of impossible love and the often stark self-realisations that follow.

Summer and Smoke is the rather wistful story of young lovers separated by their physical and spiritual concept of relationships. Neighbours since childhood, the anxious Alma becomes drawn to newly qualified doctor John, and in doing so goes against the rules of life, conduct and decency that she aims to live by. Demanding a connection of souls, the young medic’s concentration on the body repels and attracts her in equal measure, never able to fully commit herself. But, as his louche lifestyle takes him into the arms of another woman, the pair find their views begin to change and a decisive moment offers one last chance to breach the divide.

One of the key things you notice in this mesmerising production, skilfully directed by Rebecca Frecknall, is how like D.H. Lawrence it is, and how Williams uses Lawrencian themes to quietly devastating effect on both his characters and his audience. One of the key characteristics of Lawrence’s major novels is the tacit push and pull between two potential lovers, as their ability to form a loving relationship rests not in the external activities and plot devices that surround them, but in the silent and inexplicable moments of ease and discord that spring up wordlessly between them.

In Sons and Lovers, Miriam finds herself at odds with protagonist Paul where a feeling of distance and disagreement seems to exist when they are alone even though they appear destined, or at least they expect, to be together. And it is this inability to reconcile the peace between their souls that sets them on an entirely different course than the one they imagined. This is exactly the tone that Frecknall creates in Summer and Smoke, of two lonely souls craving each other but unable to find a rhythm despite the fervent desire of their bodies and minds.

And loneliness tears through Frecknall’s charged interpretation, manifesting itself in many different ways, as two quite opposite personalities seek solace outside the self. Like Lawrence, Williams is writing about young people at a precipice, where the next choice will define the rest of their life and making the wrong one (or having it made for them) will forever extinguish some kind of flame within them. Desperation reeks through the Almeida’s show, as the moving story of Alma and John becomes a fight for life in which they must find a perfect union or are lost forever not only to each other, but also to themselves.

Cannily staged by Tom Scutt with a circle of pianos played by a small supporting cast in multiple roles, Mark Dickman uses music to infuse the production, perfectly underscoring whole scenes and individual moments with an emotionally-driven score and, even more crucially, wells of silence that engulf the principals’ and audience hearts. Lee Curran’s lighting supports the creation of mood and location which, in a minimal setting, brings out the sunlit heat of the Mississippi town by day and the sultry shadows of night, perfectly reflecting the physical and emotional state of the leads. Scutt and Curran underscore, Williams’s fragmented story as Alma and John’s experience drifts like smoke into view before floating away, fragile and light.

But Frecknall weaves this into a hugely impactful experience, building the tension between the characters in Act One, loading their interactions with greater passion and investment, before allowing Act Two to dissolve around them, emphasising the growing distance and impossibility of their relationship. Deftly directed, Frecknall allows Williams’s story to fill your heart only to break it.

Still early in her career, Patsy Ferran has gathered quite the portfolio of impressive performances in what is still a relatively short CV. With notable roles in Speech and Debate as well as My Mum’s a Tw*t in the last year alone, Ferran is fast becoming one of the most interesting actors on the London stage. She has a particular gift for presenting the perspective of the outsider, showing the human fears and pain that sit beneath the surface, so she’s perfectly cast as the gentle but nervy singing teacher Alma whose struggles eventually consume body and soul.

Told predominantly from the perspective of restrained Minister’s daughter Alma, Ferran’s performance is full of beautifully judged small gestures which build to form a picture of a young woman emerging from emotional seclusion into a world of feeling. The tragedy lies in the timing. Having chastely loved the boy next door for years, Ferran shows how physical sensation starts to blossom in Alma as she shares a succession of increasingly intimate moments with John. You feel the rippling effect as he lightly takes her pulse for the first time, the virtually scandalous intrusion of a stethoscope to listen to her heart and Ferran makes each act a tug of war between shame and desire, fearing the unexpected flutter of yearning John’s proximity creates while desperately craving it.

As the story unfolds, Alma blooms and her initial awkwardness around him where she’s all heavy limbs and nervous laughter, evolves into a visible determination to be near him, to overcome her reticence and lean into him. In lesser hands, Alma could be frustrating, gawkish and even irritating but it’s so gently done that Ferran holds you in thrall with a performance that subtly merges hope with an inevitable sadness.

John is no less interesting, and while his story is not the central focus of Williams’s play, Matthew Needham builds an equally tragic story of jaded disappointment. John, like Alma, is trapped in a predetermined role, forced into becoming a doctor by his difficult father Dr Buchanan. So, John rebels and Needham brings a sad desperation to his attempts to find solace in the seedy local entertainments. He may womanise, drink and gamble but it’s clear that none of it makes him happy, so every aspect of his life, even the defiant acts against respectability, seem to chip away at his sense of self, drawing him unstoppably towards an unremarkable future.

His physicality is palpable throughout the story and Needham shows John visibly waking-up when he’s with Alma, responding to her presence and feeling drawn to some essential purity in her. As that becomes increasingly complex, Needham charts John’s retreat extremely effectively, so as the tables turn between them and he gives up the fight, watching him succumb to the life he never wanted is very moving. Ferran and Needham have an incredible chemistry, these are two characters that don’t just love but actually infect each other with devastating effect on who they become.

The surrounding cast create a whole town’s worth of people and with some clever doubling of roles get to play opposing interpretations of similar characters. Forbes Masson is both Alma and John’s fathers, the kindly Reverend Winemiller who fears for his daughter’s moral safety and the dastardly Dr Buchanan whose strict rules and uncompromising character drive his son to rebellion. Anjana Vasan plays both the sexy Mexican girl Rosa who John becomes involved with at the same time as Alma, while also performing as the innocent Nellie who makes a play for him in the Second Act – having both roles played by the same actor indicating something about John’s view on the generic face of women who are not Alma.

Much of the play’s humour is centred in the more liberated character of Mrs Winemiller, Alma’s mother who had a breakdown before the start of the story. Nancy Crane brings a sense of uncaring freedom to the role, defying social convention to make jokes at her daughter’s expense, behave childishly and not care. It’s a fascinating contrast not just with the buttoned-up Alma, but also with the more conventionally rebellious John, who doesn’t find a tenth of the happiness that the genuinely free Mrs Winemiller obtains.

Summer and Smoke is a glorious adaptation of one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser known works, and like Peter Gill’s The York Realist entering its final weeks at the Donmar Warehouse, the business of the play is handled with such subtly that it allows the deep emotional connection at the heart of the story to flourish. With a magnetic central pairing, Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke is unmissably beautiful, and the Almeida at its finest.

Summer and Smoke is at the Almeida Theatre until 7 April. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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


%d bloggers like this: