Tag Archives: Matthew Warchus

A Christmas Carol – Old Vic: In Camera

A Christmas Carol - Old Vic In Camera

It is week two of the A Christmas Carol Cold War in London’s West End and the turn of the Old Vic who have made their new digital production available to international audiences online until Christmas Eve. A very different prospect from the wonderfully atmospheric take on Dickens’s festive ghost story currently running at the Bridge Theatre, this In Camera version (also with a 90-minute running time) uses increasingly sophisticated Zoom techniques to transcend the social distancing challenges of delivering such a large scale production.

An annual event at the Old Vic for several years with previous Scrooges including Rhys Ifans, Paterson Joseph and Stephen Tomkinson, this In Camera production marks a return to the stage for Andrew Lincoln who takes on the mantel of Jack Thorne’s slightly younger interpretation of the central character whose Thatcherite individualism refuses to be thawed by the succession of spirits determined to show him the error of his ways. Thorne’s Scrooge is unswayable, refusing to be made misty eyed by the memories of his past or feel any responsibility for the lives of those his business touches, certain his path is the right one.

Reorientating the Story

If this is your inaugural experience of the Old Vic’s interpretation, then the first thing you will notice is that Thorne’s version of this most famous of festive stories is a little different, using Dickens’s novella as a frame to draw on the descriptive passages and dialogue but curtailing or entirely dispensing with some of the better known segments to expand the story outward. Most notable is the inclusion of a psychological backstory far larger than the one that the Ghost of Christmas Past traditionally reveals, and while a whistlestop tour of school days and Fezziwig’s party are included, the insertion of Scrooge’s father is most unexpected.

Why Scrooge was at the boarding school in the first place becomes part of an origins story of child abuse, violence and paternal disappointment that shapes Ebenezer’s later attitudes and activities. Thorne includes several scenes in which the cold and contemptuous head of the family taunts his notably motherless son, expressing a lack of faith in the younger Scrooge’s ability to provide for them. And himself laden with debt, this father character appears across the first two ghostly visitations expressing disapproval that adds an extra dimension in Thorne’s more deterministic trajectory for Scrooge taking him from schoolboy to miserly financier determined to chart a different path to his overbearing and less successful father. There is a strong family theme throughout the production that equally builds on Scrooge’s adoration of his sister Little Fan, a purity of feeling that becomes increasingly vital as he eventually reconsiders his life.

Thorne tinkers with the story in several other ways, playing on the darker thematic elements around death to make Fezziwig a funeral director rather than a merchant allowing this version of Scrooge to demonstrate his more grasping traits far earlier than Dickens suggests. And while Belle is usually a momentary figure that Scrooge exchanges as his greed grows, Thorne – drawn to a love story – initially shows her to be the placating influence that could have redirected Scrooge’s fiscal obsession and then uses her as a recurring character against whom Scrooge can measure the success of his life choices. Belle’s subsequent family happiness is thus relocated to scenes presented by the Ghost of Christmas Present and she again appears in a slightly reconfigured redemption sequence at the end.

The production races along, dispensing with much of Dickens’s preamble and scene setting and reaching the arrival of Marley almost immediately. Act One is only 50-minutes accounting for three of the four spiritual ventures while Act Two is around 40-minutes so many of the familiar crutches are excised or limited to passing comments. Tiny Tim becomes even tinier, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is recast as a familiar character while most of its visions are condensed into one funereal scene. Thorne also plays around with the structure of the story to bring Bob and Fred into Scrooge’s future for a brief oration that makes sense both of their innate goodness as people but also their persistence in upholding a relationship with the man they should both consider a lost cause.

But perhaps Thorne’s most intriguing change is to tinker with concepts of reality in the final section of the story when a seemingly redeemed Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning born again. There are no eager urchins and giant turkeys here, and while Thorne provides the usual bombastic joy of redemption in which the now light-hearted hero spreads good cheer and charity throughout London, the return of the three ghosts for one last encounter with Scrooge forces the audience and the character to reconsider what they have just experienced.

Best of all is the decision to let the actor in the role of Scrooge play all versions of himself throughout other than his earliest appearance as a schoolboy. It means the title character is less an observer of his past, present and future, standing in the shadows and watching it unfold but an active participant, reinforcing the concept that this is his life which he recreates for the audience as a means of reconnecting with it.

Most of the changes work well and while film in particular has been perhaps too in love with unnecessary origins stories in recent years, the chance to expand on and reset this overly-familiar Christmas story is an interesting one. Brief by Dickens’s standards, A Christmas Carol retains its eternally captivating hold over us because the characters feel as though they exist beyond the confines of the novel; that Scrooge lived before and after the period of Dickens’s tale is something Thorne uses to open out the story and distinguish it from the many competing adaptations, of which there are many this year. Purists may not be so kind.

The Filming Style

This is by far the most ambitious In Camera production to date, including both a far larger cast and a much longer run than previous productions – Lungs, Three Kings and Faith Healer. And across the series (all briefly available as pre-recorded encore showings in recent weeks), it is clear how much Matthew Warchus and his camera team have learnt about the various ways to tell stories on film within the limitations of the side-by-side Zoom box functionality, a feat that was relatively manageable with only a couple characters speaking at any one time.

But, A Christmas Carol is far more complex, requiring the In Camera team to rethink direction, blocking and scene structure to capture several socially distanced actors at once. It opens with a montage effect in which eight boxes containing a bell ringing narrator edge the screen around a central picture, after which the middle image expands to fill half of the screen and this multilayered, multi-camera effect is used throughout with varying success. At its best, it allows actors to have dialogue with one another in close-up, creating intimacy and grounding in the story as scenarios come quickly to life, particularly effective in conversations between Scrooge and Belle as she sizes him up during their first meeting or later through a doorway that uses the edges of the prop frame to allude to their proximity.

The technique is used frequently, splicing the screen in two or three boxes as Scrooge interacts with the various people in his life usually watched over by one of the Ghosts. For it to work effectively it requires considerable technical management by the actors, knowing exactly where to stand at the right moment in a busy and fast moving live performance to create the illusion of direct conversation when one camera cannot capture all parties. In the first weekend outing, this didn’t always go to plan as arms or an actor’s movement accidentally intruded into another camera shot making them appear in two places at once which the longer run will have time to polish. While the possibilities of Zoom have come a long way this year, its limitations cannot replicate the cutting techniques of film in capturing action and reaction as competently as perhaps the National Theatre Live team did so recently with Death of England (Delroy) Occasionally hectic in direction, these side-by-side boxes and attempts to move rapidly between then is sometimes too jarring and creates a little falsity in the set-up.

But the most impressive aspect of this digital A Christmas Carol is the live layering of images to create spectral scenes. This was a technique used to great effect by Chichester Theatre recently in Crave to transition between the actors and only visible to those watching the live stream. Here, it really comes into its own by creating echoed images that overlay one another to impressively create scenes hauntingly reanimated by the Ghosts. Visually this is a full screen shot in which Scrooge can move freely and safely around the stage among what look like semi-transparent phantoms filmed elsewhere and merged with the central image. The production team also create twin images of individuals on stage and blur them to suggest the bustle and exuberance of the London crowds on Christmas Day which gives the production a dynamic feel as it builds to a positive conclusion.

The Theatre Techniques

Some of the best moments though are those in which the theatre techniques of the Old Vic are given prominence; seeing the darkened auditorium illuminated by hanging lanterns is beautiful and transporting food from the Lilian Baylis Circle to the stage via fabric chute is wonderfully inventive. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is to be much admired creating shadow and stark white spotlight to evoke the changing mood of the story while bathing the scene in shades of warm purple that bring the room alive onscreen. Rob Howell’s Victorian costumes and minimal props nod to the traditional while Christopher Nightingale’s original music performed live in the Dress Circle by Will Stuart, Chris Allan, Clare Taylor, Martin Robertson and Pedro Vieira da Silva is understated but integral to the pace and shape of the story.

In celebration of the purely theatre elements of this show, Andrew Lincoln’s Scrooge is a joy, overcoming the strangeness of a hybrid production and the numerous challenges of the presentation style to deliver a more vigorous interpretation of the man than often seen. He is also considerably meaner, almost admirably so with his refusal to be swayed by the tricks of the three ghosts and resolute that his ability to take care of himself remains the correct choice for him.

He rejects the vary basis for change so soundly that his eventual redemption may seem rather sudden and the audience may enjoy his lack of sentimentality about his past or the concept of Christmas, even coming to quite like his irascible refusal to be cowed on the say so of some interfering other worldly beings – this is a man who knows who he is. But amidst the swirling Zoom adventures, Lincoln brings a real gravitas to proceedings, anchoring the production and delivering a performance of variety and skill that will leave you hoping he returns to the stage more often in the future.

There is good support from Melissa Allan as Scrooge’s sister Little Fan who has far more purpose here, while Maria Omakinwa stepping in as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Golda Rosheuvel as the Ghost of Christmas Present offer some no nonsense spirits that develop a connection with each other as well as the protagonist. Clive Rowe is great as Fezziwig and chief bell ringer / narrator while Michael Rouse brings fright as both Marley and Scrooge senior.

The In Camera series has really pushed the boundaries of live theatre this year for a venue unable to reopen, and while this one is not yet perfect, the Old Vic is thinking hard about the narrative and technical aspects of the audience experience. Running for the fourth time, the Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol is now an annual tradition of a not quite traditional interpretation. Circumstances may have changed this year but necessity is the mother of invention and this transition to online production will only go from strength to strength as the run continues.

A Christmas Carol runs at the via the Old Vic: In Camera series until 24 December with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Faith Healer – Old Vic In Camera

Faith Healer - Old Vic

‘It can never be the same’, a complaint we hear regularly about the proliferation of online streaming while theatres remain closed or unable to operate at usual capacity, and in many ways it is true. The immediacy and intimacy are lacking on a screen, the buzz of the room as it ripples with the effect of the storytelling and staging decisions, the communal experience as a whole auditorium of strangers holds its breath in anticipation as the comedy, romance and tragedy of human experience plays out in front of you. Streaming, though a worthy and hugely valuable alternative in the last few months, just cannot replicate that feeling of being there. And then the Old Vic’s production of Faith Healer came along and changed everything.

Brian Friel’s incredible play ran for just five performances via the In Camera series and yet overcame all those distancing boundaries to become one of the most vital and affecting experiences of the year. Reconfigured as an online experience, the successive monologue format combined with three outstanding performances and a technical construction that used several innovative film techniques to enhance every aspect of the story. It was  an experience so affecting, so painfully intimate and so beautifully played it felt as though Friel had written Faith Healer especially for this format.

A Memory Play

Faith Healer is one of the most sophisticated examples of a memory play in which each character reflects on their years together and the key incidents that define their lives. Unlike A Glass Menagerie to which the term is most commonly attributed and uses a single narrative perspective that couches events in the memory or fantasy of the protagonist, Friel’s play allows each creation to speak for themselves in lengthy and uninterrupted flows of thought. The writer uses these perspectives to note that among three people who knew each other well, how differently they view the pivotal moments in their lives which are dramatically enhanced or reconfigured by the alternative viewpoints.

What makes Faith Healer such an interesting memory play is the complicated ways in which Friel uses impossible timelines in the retelling of their story. Frank, Grace and Teddy all refer to each other in the past tense, as though remembering events of which they are the sole survivor – an approach that cannot be born out as the true story reveals itself. So just what is the status of these reminiscences, are all of the characters alive, ghosts or other kinds of consciousness? It’s a throwaway concept but one that Friel has chosen deliberately to create drama in his play as the ‘truth’ becomes more ambiguous. That this only enhances rather than undermines his narrative structure is testament to the quality of his writing and the spell it casts on the viewer.

Collectively, these tales form a semi-complete picture in which Friel, like a historian or policeman trying to understand the evidence, encourages the audience to piece together these fragments of experience to find the truth of what occurred between the Faith Healer, his wife and his agent. But this is not a mystery to be solved so much as an exercise in the complexities of human relationships, the emotional damage people casually inflict on one another over many years while still clinging to the stability and sustenance the group offers.

Several recurring themes beat under the surface of this work and, like Translations, Friel is exercised by ideas of Irish identity, of retaining  a sense of cultural self in diaspora and the specificity of place in grounding emotionally or physically transitory characters, providing anchorage as personality becomes fluid. This is particularly felt in the repeated reference to ‘homecoming’ in the first two monologues as Frank and Grace, long absent from Ireland, describe returning both to their original family houses and later to the nation itself, where being among their countrymen proves liberating and fateful.

That these encounters are suffused with death is pertinent and both Hardys recount impromptu returns that foreshadow loss and result in contact with disapproving father figures who shape the outlook of both Frank and Grace in slightly different ways. That the couple contest the other’s version of events only adds to the complexity of unbreakable yet burdensome family ties which is often at the root of Friel’s characterisation, examining how domineering male figures create rebellion and dissatisfaction in their children.

Production Techniques

Matthew Warchus’s approach seems entirely fitting for a play about memory and displacement and in envisaging this production for the screen overcomes the limitations of the streaming platform by using a number of surprising filming techniques. The cast are all experienced screen actors and have an innate understanding of where the camera is and what it is doing at any given moment. This is woven through their performances without restricting their freedom to move around or change tempo as the story demands. Frank, for example, is the only character to stand throughout so Warchus – as with Three Kings – frames Sheen against the empty Old Vic auditorium which only enhances the idea that Frank has always played to empty rooms as what little audience he had dies away.

What is fascinating, though, is how confident the camerawork is and how meaningfully it captures the style of the play. There are no Zoom boxes here nor multiple angles to cut between, just a single camera trained on the protagonists as their confessional plays out. At moments of dramatic crescendo or poignancy the camera slowly focuses-in on the actor, edging nearer as the audience is drawn into their perspective, until the frame is filled by just their face, an intimacy with the production that no theatre experience can offer. Warchus even more daringly takes us closer still, until just the performer’s eyes are visible, a chance to see in painfully close detail where lies, self-deception, suffering and disappointment reside, drawing out the undercurrents of Friel’s play where what characters tell us and what they really feel are not always aligned.

There is a simplicity to this approach that yields remarkable value for the Old Vic, each character is given equal treatment, no one monologue suggested as more true than the others. To enhance the unfolding drama Tim Lutkin and Sarah Brown have designed a lighting arrangement that suits the filmic approach, casting different degrees of shadow around the speakers to ground or untether them as the story demands. Grace particularly seems to float in a sea of black behind her, while the comic lightness of Teddy’s version of events is far brighter, picking out the moments of affliction with darkness. But Lutkin and Brown do their best work in the final moments, casting concentrated, almost noirish shadows across Frank’s face as Warchus’s close-up creates a sense first of mania as Frank’s disordered mind explodes before a semi-reverent calm descends on the visuals as the story concludes. How this deep understanding of the play’s rhythms are reflected and enhanced by the filming choices is astounding, the medium adding something new and revealing to an already celebrated piece of writing.

Frank

Our first image of Francis Hardy is as actor Michael Sheen walks along a trajectory filled with chairs as though situated in the now empty hall after one of his performance to begin his first 35-minute monologue, setting the scene for everything that is to come. The light dramatically behind Sheen, Frank is already a man fighting with time, overwhelmed by memories of the not-quite glory days while reconciling the disappointments of a dwindling career as he questions what the years of showmanship have really given him.

Frank is not a Faith Healer in the American sense, there’s no evangelical optimism or grandiosity about his personality, instead he cuts a rather tragic figure right from the start, worn and reduced by his time on the road. A consummate performer though, his mediocre gift, which he freely admits only works some of the time, gives him little comfort, and Frank wearily describes the achievements he barely believes in himself. He balks at the word charlatan in a newspaper-cutting but never entirely contests the description, complains of the troublesome nature of the mistress who accompanies him and does an amusing impression of his refined cockney manager Teddy both of whom we are yet to meet. And while his profession should be about the hope and restoration that Frank gives to his audiences, instead we feel his loss, as though something has been taken from him rather than freely given.

Sheen uses far more movement on the stage than the other actors, pacing and turning from the harsh glare of the camera as the character fudges and hides from the truth of his life. At times, particularly in the second part of his monologue as Faith Healer concludes, Sheen has the confidence to turn his back to us addressing the empty darkness of the Old Vic auditorium, the actor perhaps taking the opportunity to perform to the house, but also reflecting Frank’s agitation in that moment. Few actors dare to do this on stage but it becomes part of the naturalism and variety within Sheen’s approach.

He knows exactly where the camera is and how to play to it, showing us more pointedly that Frank is hiding even from himself and having to recite the Celtic names of the towns he has passed as a coping mechanism, a calming methodology to keep him on track. With a soft Irish accent that reverberate’s Friel’s words so beautifully, Sheen’s performance is extraordinary, understanding all of the complexities of Frank’s character that make him a warm and often likeable storyteller, vividly recreating the scenes of his life, but a man at odds with everything he is, capable of great selfishness that hurts others while still reeling from the difficult relationships with his family and travelling companions. As the memories overwhelm and disturb him to such effect, you think it can’t get better than this.

Grace

And then Grace’s story is every bit as powerful, delivered in a heartbreaking monologue by Indira Varma who uses stillness to convey her character’s brittle subsistence. But it is the incongruities you will first notice, pulling apart the notions that Frank has implanted in our heads and realigning the audience’s understanding of the nature of their relationship and its chronology. Varma delivers these contradictions with a world-weary resignation, although a hint of frustration creeps in as Grace not only deflates the ego of the man she spent her life with but, for the first time, stakes her own claim to their life together.

It quickly becomes tragic as, hardly moving, Grace recounts the early days of their married life and her own complicated relationship with her father that seems to shape her experience as she buffers between the three men that feature in her story. Grace has the darkest experience in many ways and Varma is subtle in drawing out the small hurts and daily contempts that erode the character over time and as she sits unassumingly in her chair fiddling with a cigarette she never lights, her downcast eyes speak volumes about the life she has chosen and subsequently endured.

As she borrows Frank’s technique of naming the places they’ve travelled through, they become a form of lament, as though each place mired her further, inescapably and inevitably building to Grace’s moment of tragedy in a small Scottish town, the name of which powerfully links the monologues together. This part of the speech is devastatingly played by Varma, descriptive yet the effect on her suddenly ashen countenance is distressing to watch and the audience sees how entirely Grace is trapped in that place and time, an event from which she never recovers. With Sheen and Varma on such extraordinary form, you think it can’t get better than this.

Teddy

And then David Threlfall casts all expectation aside with a performance of comic acuity that upends your expectations of where this play is going. Again, it is Friel’s control of the facts that you will notice and, having dismissed Frank’s monologue as semi-fabricated in the light of Grace’s testimony, far more of the Faith Healer’s story is shown to be true. Employing a refined cockney accent and absorbing the mannerism and speech patterns of a man long-part of the showbiz world, Threlfall pitches his interpretation of Teddy perfectly to contrast with the intensity of what has gone before, seen from the perspective of the outsider to the marriage.

There is a shabby gentility to Teddy who addresses the audience with a conversational ease as he describes the acts he has managed in the past, though none of them remotely glamorous or above the level of variety performers. In fact, in Warchus’s otherwise timeless setting, there are nods to The Entertainer in Threlfall’s approach, a lifetime in the theatre but an end of the pier grubbiness that never escapes the shabby rooms that Frank resents. A characterisation that Threlfall holds onto superbly throughout his piece.

Threlfall is able to switch the mood from comic to tragic in seconds, a technique he employs in Faith Healer to considerable effect. This Teddy, revealingly, drinks ale incessantly throughout and is clearly troubled by the events he has been part of, things he seems to have run away from until the play takes him back to the village in Scotland and later to the police station in Paddington where the two key events of his interaction with the Hardys takes place. Watching Threlfall remove Teddy’s surface layer and travel back into these painful remembrances is very touching.

Collectively these three storytellers are particularly adept at recreating the events in an almost visual conjuring of memory with Sheen, Varma and Threfall becoming their characters so entirely that when they describe an earlier scenario, Frank, Grace and Teddy lose themselves in the the physical existence of the place they describe, physically gesturing to the ghost of a companion sitting across from them or referencing activity in another part of the room with such conviction that the audience too is absorbed by it.

With an appreciation for the vivacity of Friel’s language and its value in building character, place and emotional heft this production of Faith Healer was an affecting experience and we can only hope that someone pressed record on the Zoom feed to retain it for posterity. Reworked for live relay, these wonderful actors delivered a hybrid stage and screen performance that took your breath away and across 2 hours and 20 minutes gave the audience an intimate experience that being in the room wouldn’t have delivered so equitably. Streaming ‘is not the same’ of course, sometimes it is even better.

Faith Healer was available via the Old Vic In Camera until 19 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Three Kings – Old Vic: In Camera

Three Kings - Old Vic Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

Good things come to those who wait, an axiom that applies in duplicate to Stephen Beresford’s latest play Three Kings screened via the Old Vic’s innovative In Camera series for just five performances. Delayed in late July due to cast illness, this beautiful piece of new writing appears just as theatre more generally is taking its first tentative steps back to live performance. After a Spring and Summer of free archive shows and Zoom Shakespeare, we have reached the hybrid phase, a mixed-model of socially distanced productions in reduced capacity venues such as the Open Air Theatre’s extraordinary Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert and the Bridge Theatre’s monologue season beginning with Beat the Devil, and  paid-for screenings of shows performed live with no audience of which Three Kings is an exemplar.

With Bristol Old Vic’s ‘regional tour’ of Romantics Anonymous playing live and available by geographical area in late September with the cast living together as a Covid bubble to circumvent social distancing requirements, Nottingham Playhouse announcing a festival of new work in late October that will simultaneously perform live to a reduced capacity audience and be live streamed, and another Old Vic: In Camera production scheduled for two weeks time (Brian Friel’s Faith Healer with Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall) this is a fascinating period of transformation and potential democratisation for a sector newly warmed to the possibilities of an international audience exceeding the limitations of venue capacity and ticket pricing.

Three Kings suggests there is every reason why new approaches to the creation and sharing of theatre content should work, a vividly drawn yet sensitive 60-minute piece about the lasting influence of a carefree absent father and his impact on the children he abandoned. Told from the perspective of eldest son Patrick (a name he shares with his father and, later, his half-brother), Beresford taps-into a noticeable thematic interest in masculinity, father-son relationships and the genetic legacy of behaviour that has been present in other work appearing on the 2020 stage.

Comparisons with Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s equally fascinating The Death of England – which will soon be followed by a companion piece at the National Theatre – are particularly striking and while Beresford’s play has no overt political angle, the complex attachment between parent and child, the inability to fully recognise or express their emotional connection and the notion of inherited characteristics passing between the generations resonate through both works. It is particularly notable that the protagonists of both these single-perspective plays, Patrick and Michael, feel a sense of powerlessness, somehow drawn to the charisma of the older man without fully understanding why or attempting to analyse that troubled yet alluring power.

Patrick and Michael are young men shaped entirely by their father’s influence, replicating their patterns of behaviour and even their modes of interaction without noticing how completely that relationship has shaped their own personality. They convince themselves they are separate, possibly even better men with liberality in their views and an ability to recognise their respective father’s shortcomings. Yet, neither can prevent a  semi-idolisation of their faulty dads, and while desperate to be different become frustratingly aware that they will never be quite the man their father is.

Beresford’s writing is particular good at building the power of absence and the painful longing it creates, the terrible behaviour of Patrick senior and lengthy intervals between meetings with his son have a greater impact than his ever-present mother and sister who receive scant mention in the monologue. In a single character play, it is essential that the writer establishes a strong physical presence for unseen characters, allowing the audience to really believe the scenario, understanding both the personality, reality and even obsession with the missing subject which Beresford achieves with skill.

Throughout Three Kings, Patrick’s amusing impressions of his father’s slightly fey and dismissive manner, the carelessness of his action and thoughtless selfishness, allow Beresford  to convincingly create the impression of a man hardly known to his son but nonetheless a significant force in his life. Just who Patrick is, his job, lifestyle, personality and history are left unsketched, the relationship with his father, anecdotes about their meetings and reflections on himself through memories of his father fill his mind and this story with considerable potency.

Time is fluid in Beresford’s writing and while the story is roughly chronological, Patrick is reliving it from a point of future knowledge. These are memories recalled, conversations recounted and wounds reopened while sometimes couching recollections within each other. Patrick’s honesty with the audience, his willingness to reveal close-cutting truths ebbs and flows throughout the play as he weighs-up the things he wants us to know, the traits he is prepared to accept in himself and the truths he’s not quite ready to face.

Framed by a trick with three coins learned from his father, Patrick explains that “the force of the one ricochets through the other two” and this becomes a metaphor for the play itself, as the lead explores the unavoidable similarities between his father, half-brother and himself. This concept of personality as legacy that equally interested Dyer and Williams becomes the driving force of Beresford’s story as the concept of the Three Kings trick and the blood-link between the three men is elaborated. The idea that genetic inheritance comes regardless of desire or active attempts to reject a predecessor’s way of life troubles Patrick increasingly as temporary bouts of bitterness give way to emotional confusion, even deterioration as an abiding love for the man he barely knew commingles with the fear of becoming just like him.

Director Matthew Warchus has taken an unusual but potentially resonant approach to staging this play, setting the action backwards on the stage to capture the lovely interior of the empty theatre in the background and utilising the over-familiarity of Zoom boxes to create several intriguing split-screen effects that vary the presentation of the monologue as the strands of the story and Patrick’s mental distraction evolve. Using one wide-screen camera at first, Warchus keeps the focus high and tight on the actor’s face, bruisingly intimate from the start, as Patrick recounts his first childhood encounter, glancing-upwards as though looking at a much taller grown-up.

But, in the second section of the play, we see Andrew Scott in two side-by-side boxes, the camera positioned at slightly different angles; one close-up of his face, the other a longer shot that helps to create the impression of physically filling stage and screen. It results in a two-fold effect and this section includes extended conversations in Spain with his father’s friend Dennis and later with a former lover called Trisha who runs a Salsa bar. Warchus uses the boxes to artificially create the feel of those conversation occurring, eliciting those sections of interaction from Beresford’s writing and giving the impression of back-and-forth on screen.

But, secondly, it draws attention to an underlying psychological split in the character of Patrick, as though the ghostly shadow of his father was permanently following him, not quite the same person, but virtually mirroring his actions. This intriguingly underlines Patrick’s inability to escape from or overcome his errant father’s influence and in the final section of the performance this expands to three boxes as Patrick discovers a third shadow self in his half-brother. Beresford notion that force of one resonates through the other two is given visual cognisance by this filming technique.

Warchus positions the cameras to capture these slightly different angles of Andrew Scott’s performance as well as employing variation in close-up and scale between the two or three box format to maintain the intimacy of Patrick’s monologue but also its breadth as he encounters a wider international community of characters. Given the limitations of live Zoom recordings and the film-like grainy-quality of the stream, it lacks the visual polish of a National Theatre Live operation and some of the musical choices in the scene changes momentarily make the 2-3 box format feel like a jaunty 1960s detective drama, yet the approach successfully contributes to the production in a way that feels genuinely purposeful.

Scott is a vivid creator of scene and his management of the unfolding story is particularly adept, transporting the audience to different time periods and locations with ease. As Patrick moves between Dublin, Spain and places in between, Scott evokes the physical and emotional separation from a father whose allure becomes increasingly fascinating to the son he hardly knows. The actor also creates a series of vocally distinct secondary characters whose speech he relays to the audience including the colourless monotone of Dennis, the viscious cool of Trisha and particularly the louche dismissiveness of Patrick Senior demanding his son impresses him, the hint of an adult Lost Boy always looking for the next big adventure.

Patrick, in his way, is almost as unknowable and Three Kings deliberately provides little biographical detail to situate the character in a specific era. Scott is always so good at getting under the skin of his characters and, as with his Hamlet for the Almeida and his Garry Essendine in the Old Vic’s Present Laughter, here he gets beneath and between Beresford’s lines to find a complicated mixture of pain, regret and quiet despair, a son discovering the price of love for a man he can never really know. The absence Patrick’s father leaves takes physical form in Scott’s performance, creating a hollow in the centre of our protagonist that will never be filled. As he listens to a voicemail from a lover outlining his own relatable faults and hears similar tales from his brother, the parallels between the three men psychologically resound and suddenly we know them, see the trajectory and pattern of their lives, three lifetimes of empty encounters.

It is hugely empathetic work from Scott that both grips and moves the audience. As with Seawall, the actor is adept at these slow-burn narrative pieces that develop to an emotional crescendo as the fragile central character confronts difficult personal truths. Scott skillfully anatomises Patrick’s relationship with his creator charting a path from a youthful desperation to impress to anger and resentment as a grown-up, trading email insults during a series of mini-betrayals that sour their interaction. But Scott never allows Patrick to entirely disconnect from the need to be loved by his father, so when the final chance is gone we see just how lost and broken he is and will always be.

By championing the world premiere of Beresford’s poignant play the Old Vic is supporting an international audience hungry for new work, and with its programme of new writing and freshly staged revivals the Old Vic: In Camera series is leading the way. There is a long way to go for most venues and we can expect to see a hybrid model of socially distant and live-streamed performances for some time, but the commitment to staging new work at theatres around the country is a positive sign as the sector slowly begins its recovery. With a touching and meaningful performance by Andrew Scott, Three Kings is a play we are sure to see again and again.

Three Kings ran via the Old Vic: In Camera until 5 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Lungs – The Old Vic

Lungs - Old Vic (by Helen Maybanks)

“We’re good people aren’t we?” wonders the neurotic couple at the center of Duncan Macmillan’s play that examines attitudes to climate change by contrasting the theoretical and statistical conscience of W and M with their desire and fundamental biological drive to procreate. And in the week where Extinction Rebellion continue to make headlines with protests all over London and in the context of inspirational messaging from Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough’s major appeal to cut single-use plastics, the effects of human behaviour on the world and its immediate future couldn’t be more relevant. But while Macmillan uses the planetary effects of child rearing as a frame for Lungs, his focus is on the two flawed people at the centre of all this confusion, wondering what it means to be a good person and still get all the things you want.

And Lungs is far more than an extended rant with Macmillan’s intriguing structural approach being one of the most notable features of the play. Performed in the round on a platform of solar panels with mounds of rocky earth breaking through the otherwise flat structure designed by Rob Howell, Lungs has no scene changes or visible locations. Instead, time, place and the activities or changes in between are only revealed through the text in a continuous flow much like life itself which never breaks so neatly into distinct chapters. Reference to a particular location such as the Ikea car park with only a beat between one scene and the next is the basis for much of the play’s humour, where the audience only later discover that the shocking, emotionally turbulent or intimate conversation we’ve eavesdropped on is happening in an unexpected place, often to hilarious effect.

The lack of scenery and any attempt by the actors to indicate location may sound like a strange and disconcerting experience, one that would surely alienate an audience from the story Macmillan is telling. Yet, while Lungs borrows the clothes of Brechtian and absurdist drama, in Director Matthew Warchus’s interpretation, on the contrary, the viewer is not only drawn into the central relationship but the approach also makes the issues and emotions they face feel more universal, as though any of us could graft these conversations onto our own lives. Throughout the play, this creates considerable investment in the outcome, with occasional gasps of  surprise reverberating around the auditorium as information is slowly revealed in the final third that alters what we know – until this point, you may not have even realised you cared about them so much.

Much of this is down to Macmillan’s impressive characterisation which, like the minimalist approach to staging, is more engaging than perhaps the pen portraits developed in the early scenes suggests. On paper, there are many things about this play that shouldn’t work; the dramatic direction of the story isn’t revelatory, some of the twists are fairly predictable, even cliched, while the bulk insertion of climate change data that both characters recite at each other should feel really clunky. But Macmillan achieves something remarkable by making his couple feel like people who would have read and memorised these kinds of facts in order to win a future theoretical argument with each other and their equally guilt-ridden friends (who we never see but are easy to imagine). And through this wordy but warmly engaging dialogue between two people who thought they were entirely in harmony, Macmillan weaves some kind of magic, making us care about their deeply flawed and muddle-headed reality.

Part of the success of Lungs is that this is not the uber-liberal, finger-wagging climate change play you expect it to be, and although Macmillan’s overall message is that we are reaching the tipping point, he’s really examining why individual action may never be enough, that selfish human needs and decisions at the micro-level will always take priority whatever the consequences. We watch W and M agonise for a long time about the carbon footprint that having a child will engender, comparing it to the daily flights to New York they could take or similar. And yet, in spite of the angst they express, the theoretical cost doesn’t ultimately affect their decision to proceed or not, so how much of their intellectual debate is lip-service to developing trends in expected middle class behaviours? And while Macmillan takes the opportunity to skewer the cosy ideas of recycling, energy-saving bulbs and organic shopping that make us and them feel like good people, the focus remains on the interaction between the couple.

W is a character you assume will come to be incredibly frustrating during the 100-minute run time. She explodes onto the stage in a mass of confused thoughts, over-processed reactions and exaggerated emphasis, the kind of person who lacks the ability to differentiate between internal monologue and vocalised emotions. When boyfriend M suggests they consider having a baby her mind is thrown into disarray from which a virtually uninterrupted monologue emerges that essentially continues throughout the play as she attempts to process, rationalise and cope with the events that follow.

What is so interesting about Macmillan’s writing is how rapidly we warm to W, how the muddy hypothesising that tries to make logical sense of her situation and the conflicted principles it creates in her mind fight a losing battle against the biological impulse to create and nurture life – not necessarily because a child is something she desperately wants or because of declining fertility, but because a child becomes an act of both genetic legacy and of continuation, where two ancestral lines come together – arguments W obliquely makes in a debate about the wider context of child rearing. Through this we come to feel the confusion, warmth and loneliness that W experiences on a trajectory that takes the couple in an unexpected direction.

By contrast, M is more straightforward, certainly in his emotional responses if not necessarily in being any less neurotic than his girlfriend. M’s view of the world seems clearer, more basic, as though acts can be committed and then taken back if you rethink. So like climate change, the choice to have a child is reversible in his view, that nature can be controlled, harnessed and contained with enough human determination – and when the might of nature strikes back at this couple in two distinct ways the folly of their over-planning is revealed. Although M raises the question of children, he could just as easily be asking if they should get a takeaway for dinner so casually is the topic introduced and so poorly considered before he speaks.

The path they take is one that finds M emotionally at odds with his partner, developing feelings his cannot express and equally unable to understand her needs. Macmillan again has taken what could be a fairly generic male character and turns his own confused outlook into something we can at least relate to if not exactly sympathise with. The enormity of a child and the enormity of the climate change problem are to M the same unscalable dilemma and his response to both becomes occasionally insensitive, even weak if not surprising. He’s not painted as an out and out villain but instead Macmillan makes his efforts seem, small, bumbling, inept and very human.

The reunion of The Crown co-leads Claire Foy and Matt Smith is a big coup for the Old Vic given the rare appearances both are able to make on stage, as well as being a well-timed one given that the next generation Netflix cast will unveil the new series in mid-November. Both are superb here and entirely believable as the couple who use words and principles to mask their deep love for one another – and it is this rather than their need to save the world or share it with a child that keeps them together. This sits under Macmillan’s story as he takes the couple through some difficult times.

Together Foy and Smith manage the technical flow of the play extremely well, building the relationship as well as the changing locations and time periods with little more than a breath between scenes. They make you care about these people, grounding them in a credibility and reality that slowly counteracts the difficult personality traits that Macmillan has given them. Foy arguably has the more complex character, W is a bundle of contradictions, a woman who seems to imprison her emotions in logic, someone whose life is always planned, clear and filled with direction expressed in continual verbiage. What is so interesting about this performance is seeing how W responds to surprises – of which there are many in this play – and Foy’s particular gift is for revealing W’s instinctual needs and how they emerge from her controlled exterior. What seems neurotic initially becomes increasingly touching as Foy builds W’s emotional state where she can no longer control her responses, it’s a brilliant and illuminating performance.

M has less depth as a character and spends much of the play mutely listening or enduring W’s verbal assault, yet Smith navigates the character’s contradictions really well, suggesting a man who wants a quiet life but is still deeply attracted to this very complicated woman. Smith also suggest the small hurts that affect M’s responses to W as the story unfolds, the build-up of his own sense of isolation and inability to cope with the pressure of these scenarios that take the pair into uncharted territory. His storyline may not take M anywhere unusual but Smith ensures you understand why he behaves as he does and remain invested in the outcome.

Lungs suggests that not only will nature make its own way through our lives however much we try to plan every detail, and while the concept of a child may be the engine of the story, it is never really the point. The wonderful connection between Foy and Smith adds an extra dimension to the text, the perfect fit of this imperfect couple is truly at the heart of this play. The last 10-minutes feel tacked-on, a look into the future that breaks the spell and makes for a weaker conclusion than this play deserves, but it does have a purpose and Macmillan is challenging us to see that individual action is really so small in the face of the climate problem, that we may congratulate ourselves on the things we do to make a difference, but ultimately those contributions are insufficient because no one is prepared to make the big sacrifices we need. Maybe we are good people but perhaps none of us are really good enough.

Lungs is at the Old Vic until 9 November with tickets from  £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Present Laughter – The Old Vic

Present Laughter - The Old Vic (by Manuel Harlan)

Noel Coward is a rather misunderstood and misrepresented writer in modern theatre; like Oscar Wilde, these days his work can be reduced to little more than a string of witty epigrams and famous phrases woven together into some increasingly outrageous plot, it’s all rather cosy – light comic farces perfect for an undemanding Saturday matinee. And regardless of whether the focus has a more rural setting or the stylish inhabitants of Paris and London, current presentations of Coward’s work come loaded with nostalgia for the 1930s and 40s, a period sentimentality about clothes and furniture which undeservedly preserve his work in aspic.

But all of this is a distraction from the various currents that flow through Coward’s plays, many of which balance humour and emotion to differing degrees. Coward was a prolific writer and while the West End has seen plenty of Hayfevers and versions of Blithe Spirit in the past decade – with a film version of the latter in production – his more complex works appear with far less frequency and colours our opinion of a more varied playwright than we ever have a chance to see.

The same writer who penned Madame Arcarti’s hilarious trance scene and left Elyot and Amanda throwing things at each other, also revealed the intense despair of drug addiction as mother and son battle with their demons in The Vortex, impressively revived as long ago as 2008 with Felicity Kendal and Dan Stevens. Such experiences reflected the aftermath of the era in which Coward lived, written in 1924 and presaging a time when the Bright Young Things would have to face a darker reality. But Coward’s perspective on relationships was equally revealing and even revolutionary. He may have broken our hearts with the gentle tragedy of Laura and Alec’s doomed love affair in Still Life (later filmed as Brief Encounter) but plays like 1933’s Design for Living involving a ménage a trois were morally and sexually ahead of their time. Let’s not forget that later in life Coward embraced the work of Harold Pinter and saw a kindred spirit eager to reframe the language of theatre.

Clearly Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus agrees and his new production of Present Laughter successfully jettisons a lot of the baggage of a Noel Coward play – the heavy sets, the knowing tone and obvious build-up to the famous lines – to create a production that rides the waves of comedy that Coward so carefully builds into the play’s construction while giving just enough room for the introspective moments that give his characters, or at least his themes, a grounding in reality. Led by yet another astonishingly good performance from Andrew Scott, by giving Present Laughter room to breathe the result is pure joy.

The Old Vic seems to be on a roll, hosting the West Ends debuts of Bill Pullman, Sally Field and Jenna Coleman in a memorable version of All My Sons was a huge coup and suddenly there is a new buzz about the place with an unmissable year ahead including a new play by Enron writer Lucy Prebble, a stage reunion for The Crown stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs and Beckett’s Endgame with Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe. Andrew Scott’s return to this theatre as egoist actor Garry Essendine looks set to consolidate The Old Vic’s status as the place to be for the next few months.

An excellent touring version of Present Laughter with Samuel West in the title role made it to Richmond in 2016 but the last West End production was at the National Theatre in 2007 with Alex Jennings. It is one of Coward’s finest comedies, examining the dual nature of celebrity where craved attention ultimately becomes a burden, and Coward simultaneously asks questions about sexual morality. Essendine has a wife he never divorced but he, and his circle, spend most of the play actively bedhopping about which the frustrated Garry speaks honestly in one of his finest speeches in Act IV.

Matthew Warchus’s production adds a modern twist by playing with sexual fluidity, making barely perceptible changes to the text to give Garry both male and female lovers. It works extremely well and if you had never seen the play before it would seem always to have been written this way. While this approach is becoming increasingly commonplace in classic revivals, here there is clear consideration of the wider purpose. Coward has points to make about the complex nature of attraction and how honest people are with themselves and others about their desires. Garry’s whims may come and go, but he is open about his need for one-night stands to bring comfort in his loneliest moments because he is unable to sustain a longer relationship. This exploration of physical desire in all its forms as a means to an end, as a distraction from Garry’s feelings of hollowness and vulnerability are fundamental to Coward’s play, so the gender and sexuality switches make perfect sense for a character desperate to be loved entirely on his own terms.

The tone of this production is quite meticulous and while the farce is allowed to unfold sometimes with considerable exuberance, there is a real confidence in how Warchus manages the build-up to the mini comic climax of each scene as well as the cumulative effect of that across the show. You feel that as director Warchus is fully in control however wild his characters become, succeeding because he well understands the rhythm of Coward’s text and those all-important currents that sit beneath the surface of the play. There is a crucial ebb and flow to the emotional responses in Present Laughter and Warchus’s skill is to recognise the ultimate poignancy of a play which occasionally creates a cartoonish silliness but is brilliantly counterbalanced by moments of genuine reflection and fear in which the characters come up against the emptiness of their lives, sometimes suddenly, sometimes creeping slowly across the scene until it starts to make sense of everything else that happens.

There is never an easy Andrew Scott performance, he’s not an actor to sit back and there is an intensity to all his creations. However lightly he wears it, he always finds the tipping point in each of the characters he plays, carefully pushing the balance as the production unfolds. It may seem like mania or wackiness but there is always a deep understanding of the intellectual and emotional drivers that create a real humanity in his performances, giving Scott the freedom to explore the absurd but also to dig into the more moving emotional distress beneath the surface to explain extreme behaviour.

Scott’s Hamlet was an intensely visceral experience, an overused word in theatre but applicable in the “excoriation of soul” that his broken and crumbling Prince of Denmark experienced, his grief and pain a vivid, almost physical presence in a genuinely heartbreaking performance. Here, as Garry Essendine, Scott gets to have a lot more fun playing with the role’s liveliness and timing to deliver a highly theatrical but surprisingly self-aware character whose better judgement is easily diverted by devoted admirers. Garry is elaborate, highly-strung, selfish, hysterical and sometimes childishly petulant but as with his Hamlet, we see a greater complexity within that speaks to Garry’s fear of ageing, possible loss of prowess and, most affectingly, a genuine loneliness that a string of meaningless encounters can never dispel. Like many Coward creations there is a level of self-deception that Scott finds but can only sustain while there is an audience for Garry to perform to.

Refreshingly, Scott speaks Coward’s lines as though Garry has just thought of them, there’s no sense of waiting for the big joke, instead he captures the rhythm of Coward’s dialogue leaving him free to be both inventive with the delivery style and genuinely hilarious. Throughout, Scott incorporates a raft of expressions and physical gestures that enhance the meaning of the line, used sparingly but to great effect. He knows precisely when to overplay Garry’s eternal performance using his dramatic side to get what he wants, and when to underplay the more insightful aspects in a role that reaches a very high comic pitch on several occasions. Yet his actions and increasingly frantic frustrations still feel both real and very human.

Scott gives this fascinating sense of fame’s illusory nature and within his creation demonstrates the extent to which other characters project their own impressions onto Garry, never quite seeing who he really is, and, as a consequence, there is an emptiness lingering beneath the surface. The comedy is wonderfully done but it’s the smaller moments of genuine connection with his lovers, of paranoia about the intrigues around him and Garry’s quiet sadness when he’s finally left alone that you will remember.

But Present Laughter is far more than a one-man show and Coward supplies a cast of comic secondary characters who all exist for a reason as part of the overall chaos that unfolds. There is a generosity within this Company that allows each performer to build their own relationship with the audience and maximise the humour in every role. Indira Varma as Garry’s wife Liz is entirely unimpressed and unflustered by her estranged husband’s behaviour, yet she is both less maternal and warmer than other interpretations. Varma’s Liz is genuinely concerned without seeming controlling, there is a sense of a real life beyond these walls which Garry’s behaviour constantly interrupts, and while Liz calmly appraises every situation exactly, there is an undercurrent of deterministic self-sacrifice in which only she can resolve the play’s sexual muddles.

Varma develops a lovely confederacy with Sophie Thompson’s Monica, Garry’s jaded and long-standing secretary. The time given to this supportive friendship is brief but important in establishing the long-awaited crisis point the play reaches. Affecting a light Scottish accent, Thompson keeps tight control of the characterisation, playing it fairly straight with a no-nonsense approach that continually refuses to indulge Garry’s moods or pander to his behaviour which results in a number of scene stealing lines that earn peals of laughter from the audience.

Notable work too from Luke Thallon – who so impressed in Pinter Five – as eager fan Roland Maule. With the sexual dynamics opened-up by this production, Thallon is given free rein to turn Roland’s obsessive enthusiasm into a puppyish devotion to Garry, bounding into the room with an incredible energy. Likewise, Joshua Hill as servant Fred, who shares some of his master’s lascivious tastes has his own range of brilliantly timed nods and winks as two men of the world converse to hilarious effect.  Every time these characters appear on stage they are enthusiastically received – it’s heartening to see early-career performers holding their own among the big stars everyone came to see and earning equal adulation from the audience.

Rob Howell’s gorgeous set has just enough 1930s detailing to imply era without being too rigorous about it, adding lots of art deco stylings and lounging spaces suitable for the home of an actor at the height of his fame, but Howell has also created an expansiveness that offers physical and emotional room for the sexual openness that Warchus draws so well from Coward’s text. The Old Vic’s production finally feels as though we’re shaking off some of the restraints that have shackled Coward to the past. So, let’s retire the caricatures of witty men with cigarette holders because Noel Coward’s importance as a stage practitioner is far more interesting than that, and this joyful production of Present Laughter is simply a wonderful night at the theatre.

Present Laughter is at The Old Vic until 10 August with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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