Tag Archives: National Theatre

Frankenstein vs. Frankenstein – National Theatre at Home

Frankenstein - National Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

The Creature

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

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

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

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

Frankenstein

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

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

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

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

The Creature vs. Frankenstein

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

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

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


One Man, Two Guvnors – National Theatre at Home

One Man, Two Guvnors - National Theatre At Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New Perspectives on Chekhov: A Three Play Analysis

Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and Three Sisters

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

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

Location and Staging

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

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

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

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

Character Psychology

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

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

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

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

Finding Comedy and Tragedy in Chekhov

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

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

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

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


A Taste of Honey – Trafalgar Studios

A Taste of Honey - National Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

A Taste of Honey is one of the great British mid-century plays, a piece of theatre written by a 19-year old in 1958 that seems to scream in the face of the witty middle class comedies and highly wrought dramas that came before it, placing not only two women centre stage but offering an unflinching examination of working class life in industrial Salford. The century before, Victor Hugo described the poverty of women as a far greater burden than that of men for the further bodily degradation it can lead to, and Shelagh Delaney uses this idea in her debut play, trapping mother and daughter in a lifestyle forced on them by the social limitations of the time, while giving them a pride and resiliance to bear their situation with an outward strength.

This co-production by the National Theatre, directed by Bijan Sheibani, has toured much of the UK this year earning rave reviews and now arrives at the main house of the Trafalgar Studios for an extended run. The last time this play was staged in the West End was also a National Theatre production, with Lesley Sharp and Kate O’Flynn in the leading roles and it continues to fascinate in frequent revivals around the country.

In our more permissive times, with greater equality rights and the expectation of work for self-sustenance, the position of women 60-years on should be very different. Yet Delaney’s insight feels as fresh and relevant as ever, as socially dictated notions of beauty, of promiscuity, motherhood and even marriage have changed far less than we imagine, making the characters of Helen and Jo still all too rare stage examples of complex and contradictory female leads.

Sheibani’s touring production sets Delaney’s play in a different context, and, as he did with his exuberant production of The Barber Shop Chronicles, uses music to underscore and drive the drama as well as linking to Helen’s former life as a club singer. It evokes the wider feel of the late 1950s and early 60s, the shifting tone of the decade and the sultry romance of its music, while connecting with the notion of impossible dreams that the play explores. This is a key theme in which both women pursue and hope for a better, easier and more respectable life knowing that they have only themselves and the grim reality of their lives to fall back on, something from which neither will ever escape.

There is an almost cinematic inclusion of live music – a drum kit, double bass and piano – which used in this way captures beat and rhythm within the action, underscoring moments of change, redirection and dramatic intensity in a scene while linking to the movie history of this piece. It’s a technique that Ed Stambollouian used to great effect in Pinter at the Pinter Collection Four last year for his vibrant interpretation of Night School, and while Sheibani applies the concept to set his production of A Taste of Honey apart, the overall effect inventively opens-out the emotional and political undercurrents of the play while creating a directorial flow between scenes that seamlessly shifts the action across ten-months in which the lives of Helen and Jo change but also stay remarkably the same.

There are so many fascinating aspects to this play that capture a particular moment in time including attitudes to inter-racial relationships and homosexuality, but are also timeless in their concern for the circularity of women’s lives and how easily history repeats itself. All of these themes emerge strongly in Sheibani’s production that simultaneously emphasises traditional social structures and its power balance while bringing an energy through the music and the staging that shows a generation on the cusp of change as Jo’s more relaxed attitudes to race and sexuality clash with Helen’s dismissive and sometimes traditionally bigoted expression. And as much as they appear to fight against it on the surface, both still hide behind the desire for respectability, fearing the gossip and disgrace that comes from stepping outside social norms.

Yet, even in 2019, there is still an expectation that all women want to be wives and mothers and it is this which makes the production feel so vital. The lack of maternal instinct or care both Jo and Helen express remains quite pointed, so when Helen abandons her 17-year old daughter at the end of Act One to follow her latest man, it remains a shocking and selfish moment, despite being a frequent occurrence as Jo later explains. Likewise, after Jo is abandoned by Jimmie she openly expresses a desire to kill the unborn child she doesn’t want. Both still create a frisson through the audience, and here Delaney’s (and Hugo’s) point is writ large, women caged by circumstances and forced into roles they have neither the desire or capacity to play with no means of support or escape.

It’s clear in this production how similar Helen and Jo really are, with Sheibani emphasising the frightening repetition of history in which Jo first despises then seems doomed to repeat the mistakes of her mother in a life filled with a succession of ineffectual men, momentary pleasures and unfulfillment. There is a feel of endlessness to their days with Helen having only reached her 40th birthday with plenty of life – and even the possibility of further children – still open to her, while the slow heat-filled months of Jo’s pregnancy seem to drag for her, a grinding cycle in which both struggle to maintain hope as each disappointment returns them back to the start before it all begins again when the next man comes along.

The character of Helen has been interpreted in various ways, but here she is a Diana Dors-type, perfectly made-up and stylishly dressed at all times even with a heavy cold at the start of the play. She makes for a stark contrast with her dank surroundings, the utilitarian privation of her one-room flat is a place she barely notices as she thinks ahead to the next opportunity. Both in spite and because of her past, there is a pragmatic dignity about Helen, she knows her worth and can take care of herself after every mishap, refusing to succumb to any form of emotionalism, insisting to her daughter that she must carry on, head held high come what may.

Jodie Prenger makes Helen less girlish than some interpretations but still a tenacious and glamorous figure, supported by a couple of musical numbers from the era that suit her voice and style. She has a seductive quality that explains her continued allure to certain types of terribly inappropriate men, while suggesting this hard surface knocked into shape by a life of relying solely on her wits and her charms to get by. Prenger makes Helen at once world weary, knowing (like the Mistress in Evita) that she will inevitably end-up alone again, but also hopeful that her past can be erased by marriage to the right man, a dream of suburban comfort and domesticity that motivates Helen to pick herself up after every knock.

But Prenger also finds the conflicting emotions beneath the surface, the confusion of a woman who wants to feel maternal, to love and to help her daughter but cannot subsume her own desires. You see clearly Helen’s fear that Jo will repeat her mistakes while doing little to prevent it, and when her relationship with Peter first soars and then crumbles rapidly into alcoholism and implied domestic violence, a fascinating collection of expressions sweep across Prenger’s face in quick succession, fear, anger, determination and regret vie for primacy as we see Helen trying to save face as she searches her inner reserves for the strength to endure her latest bad choice.

Jo has a lot of growing-up to do across the two hours of Delaney’s play, starting as a sullen and disapproving schoolgirl who encounters her first taste of love, heartbreak and the inevitable consequences of freedom in just a few months. Gemma Dobson navigates the extremes of the role with skill, conveying Jo’s youth and naivety extremely well while also showing her maturity and self-sufficiency as the action unfolds. There is a sense that Jo was never really a child, unable to enjoy the same careless freedom as others, shaped by her often absent mother whose refused intimacy breeds a stubborn resentment in Jo. Dobson’s Jo develops an interesting chemistry with Prenger, a convincingly taut mother-daughter relationship that feels complex but also satisfying, knowing that they will always return to each other somehow.

Yet, Jo is more sensitive than Helen, lacking her experience of life and not yet sure who she is, Jo dreams of romance and escape in a far more sentimental way than her mother. Even after her abandonment, Jo continues to daydream about Jimmie and an idealised form of love and relationships that he embodies for her which Dobson makes credible and sympathetic as the character indulges her hope of escape and freedom from the confines of her homelife. Through this, the audience is shown that Jo cannot cope alone and her rapid adoption of Geoffrey as pseudo-husband and companion is setting in motion a chain of events that will ultimately lead to Jo becoming a version of Helen.

Stuart Thompson makes his professional debut as Geoffrey – a character whose open homosexuality was radical ten years before decriminalisation – and brings a warmth to the role as he also weighs-up the veneer of respectability, considering on the one hand whether to pursue a relationship with Jo while bringing domestic calm to their grimy flat. Thompson also provides some musical linking between scenes in Act Two, while Geoffrey’s dedication to Jo is tested by Helen’s return, allowing the actor to align the character’s weaknesses with the other men in the play including Tom Varey’s volatile Peter and Durone Stokes’s Jimmie.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set suggests the deprivation of the Lancashire slums but the one-room flat takes on a homeliness as the story unfolds with minor changes to the decor that reflect the central characters’ evolving relationship, while Paul Anderon’s lighting takes the audience from the sensual and atmospheric musical scene changes to the intense heat of summer as the two women are caught in a glare of social expectation. Occasionally the lines feel a little stilted largely due to the self-conscious stageyness of Delaney’s writing in places that creates an occasional sense of artificiality in the the drama, but Sheibani’s innovative use of music to underpin key moments in the story helps to galvanise the production – although the permanently onstage musicians could look a little less bored, they are as visible to the audience and as integral to Sheibani’s vision as the actors. Still, Delaney’s play feels as prescient as ever and with its comment on the burden of expectation placed on women, class struggle, race and sexuality, more than six decades on it’s lost none of its bite.

A Taste of Honey is at the Trafalgar Studios until 29 February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


My Brilliant Friend Parts One and Two – National Theatre

My Brilliant Friend - National Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

The page to stage transfer can be a tricky process and in the last few years The National Theatre has been at the forefront of a wave of inventive and on the whole successful co-produced adaptations of much-loved novels. Their Jane Eyre with The Bristol Old Vic utilised a host of theatrical techniques to dramatise the life of the proto-feminist governess, while last year’s production of Small Island felt significant. Yet the pitfalls are many in the process of removing the interior authorial voice and giving life to the wider  narrative context and characterisation that the novel has the space and capacity to consider in detail. This two-part reworking of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitian series is much anticipated and, after an acclaimed run at the Rose Theatre Kingston, makes its West End debut at the Olivier Theatre.

Part One summaries Ferrante’s first two novels, My Brilliant Friend from which the show takes its overall title, and The Story of a New Name with around 85-minutes given over to the content of the first book and 45 to the second. Part Two – which you can see on the same day or on successive evenings – deals with Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (c. 75 minutes) and The Story of the Lost Child (c.60 minutes) making both a little shorter than their advertised 2 hour and 45 minute run times.

It is undoubtedly an ambitious project to compress a couple of thousand pages of text, a huge cast of characters and 60-years of history into just over 5 hours of theatre, and while sometimes the show feels a little lightweight as it gallops through the incidences of Lenu and Lila’s story, the overall effect successfully conveys the complexities of long-lasting female friendship as well as capturing the undercurrents of violence that form the social structures of Nepalese society, not to mention the aspirational effects of scholastic achievement that run through the novel to create class movement in a period of rapid social and technological change, particularly for women.

People love Ferrante’s work for its psychological authenticity and the almost immersive quality of the writing that instantly pulls the reader into the world and experiences of her characters, vividly creating the nature of life in Naples in the 1950s and 1960s particularly well. Her characters are so well-rounded that no one is wholly good or bad but given depth and perspective that shifts over the long experience of the novels as lives go in opposing directions while opportunities, love affairs and calamities come and go. To bring all this to the stage Melly Still’s reworking of April De Angelis’s adaptation gives the show both a flowing and episodic quality as the interior monologue of the protagonist Elena Greco know as Lenu through whose eyes the reader sees the world entirely in the books, is replaced by fully dramatised scenes that in Part One tip the balance in favour of Lila’s character before restoring Lenu to the centre of her own story in Part Two.

As a result, Lenu becomes more an observer of her brilliant friend’s more vivid life. Events pass rapidly on Soutra Gilmour’s sparse set that (surely) repurposes the fire escapes from Follies to become the balconies and stairwells of the slum area of close habitation that frames the story – an effective approach which captures the bustle and tension of neighbours in close proximity and in which threats of spontaneous violence often erupt. The sparring use of giant wrap-around video screens project images of writing and drawing in Part One as Lila creates The Blue Fairy from which Lenu’s own desire to become a writer stems, while later images of apartment blocks, riots and even static distortion convey the wider social and political atmosphere.

The creation of community where love and hate live side-by-side is one of My Brilliant Friend‘s most interesting achievements in Part One building a strong foundation – as Ferrante does with the novels – for the direction of her protagonists in their simultaneous desperation to escape, control and be consumed by this formational place. It is here that the basis for both women’s future interaction with men are shaped, using Toby Olié’s puppetry to interesting effect to dramatise the violent confrontations that shock but also show the disassociation of the victim. When Lila is raped on her wedding night by her new husband, a puppet dress takes her place in a stylised confrontation while the real Lila lays distraught on the floor – it is powerfully rendered. The later use of puppets to represent children in Act Four feels superfluous and irritatingly twee by comparison.

The choice to make Lenu solely a character and not a narrator is – at least in Part One – an uneasy one, pushing her into the background and simplifying, on the one hand, her role and the intensity of her relationships in the first two novels including downplaying the mixed messaging of Nino. On the other hand, towards the end of the first evening, it does help to mark her transition to writer and chronicler of Naples life. When Niamh Cusack starts to recite text taken directly from Ferrante’s pages at the bookstore launch of Lenu’s first novel, the whole play suddenly comes alive in an entirely different way, arguably marking the point where Lenu finds her voice and a degree of independence from Lila that will shape Part Two which also makes sense as a stage decision. Yet the absence of her authorial perspective in the rest of Part One feels like a loss in what at times becomes a succession of connected scenes rather than an unfolding narrative held firmly and consistently together by Lenu’s controlling hand.

Part Two is considerably more successful and while potentially the earlier production has created the groundwork, it is here that the stage adaptation shows greater confidence in the management of the material and the overarching themes – helped not a little by the proper placement of Lenu at the centre of her own story. The growing discontent she feels as an intellectual woman force by circumstance and patriarchal expectations into the (to her) restrictive roles of wife and mother are really well conveyed, lifting dialogue so recognisably from Ferrante’s third instalment. Likewise, Lenu’s struggle to retain her sense of self and a momentum to keep writing throughout her awkward marriage to fellow academic Pietro well suggests the building pressure and loneliness of a woman who believes she was educated for more.

The third act is also more strikingly political as Still in her duel capacity as director uses the video screens and choroegraphed fight sequences by John Sandeman to evoke the riot at Bruno Soccavo’s factory, aspects of which intrude on Lenu’s growing domestication and seeing the two side by side with Lenu and her family blithely unaware of the violence around them is one of the high points of this production. Likewise, the growing Mafioso-like dominance of the Solaras has the two brothers and their matriarch enter like film noir villains, bathed in shadow and scored with a notable composition that strikingly contrasts with family life.

The skill with which Still combines these two aspects creates a stronger and more consistent narrative flow than Part One that cleverly represents traditional power structures under attack as they are brought under pressure from political activism as well as also the growing demands of female intellectual recognition. And Jon Nicholls sound design and music choices are integral to the context of the piece, playing snatches of era-defining songs at crucial moments to facilitate scene changes but also to rapidly relocate the action to a different year or decade creating instant recognition for the audience of the mood of the times and the individual characters at any given moment.

Across the four acts of this two-part drama, the changing friendship of Lila and Lenu is the strength of My Brilliant Friend and while this is at the expense of depth among the supporting cast, creating only impressionistic portraits of everyone else, the charting of an enduring but never smooth experience of female companionship and solidarity is rare enough sight on any stage. In many ways the story improves with Lila’s absence – an unpopular opinion perhaps – but the character never quite holds the allure her author originally ascribed to her, while Lenu’s trajectory was always far more interesting on the page even when she doubted her own value.

Niamh Cusack plays Lenu across the many decades of the story taking her from the gauche pre-teen playing with dolls to the assured author in her 60s, and while the concept of adults playing children usually means squeaky voices and plenty of exaggerated gurning, Cusack avoids all of that to make her youthful Elena studious and innocent, vastly overshadowed by her glamorous friend. But as the years pass, Cusack brings a growing strength to the performance that captures the Lenu we know from the books, navigating her way through domestic upheavals while reacting to the changes affecting Naples and the wider world that drive her own desire to commentate on it as well as enhance her education. As our narrator, Lenu is highly sympathetic and Cusack sustains the momentum well across more than five hours of theatre, an impressive performance and no mean feat given she is in almost every scene.

Katherine McCormack conveys the fiery aspects of Lila as she chooses a path that is ultimately far more treacherous than her friend’s. But Lila is a hard character to like, she’s largely dismissive, aggressive and at times self-pitying, making decisions that deliberately wound Lenu, so in the play’s more simplified approach its difficult to believe – as Lenu’s husband Pietro points out – that the pair could have remained friends for so long. McCormack captures the relentlessness of Lila’s life and the extent to which decisions that shape her are beyond her control leaving her with very few moments of real happiness, but across the many hours of the play the character’s attitudes and slightly dramatic style of speech are remarkably unvarying, giving McCormack little to work with.

A similar pruning happens across the sub-characters too, a necessity to bring this complex set of novels to the stage, and although well-acted across the cast, it does loosen some of the emotional undercurrents present in Ferrante’s work. Ben Turner’s Nino has far less presence here and while Turner suggests his charm there’s none of the charismatic intensity of long-held romantic or political passion for which Lila and Lenu risk both their marriages, while Mary Jo Randle’s mother to Lenu is primarily a comedy character transposed to generic northern housewife that gives little time to the substantial psychological influence Immacolata has on every aspect of her daughter’s life and the significance of Lenu’s determination to make her own decisions.

Part Two is a little more satisfying in construction and flow than Part One largely because Lenu is much more in focus in the second half, but the five and a half hours essentially fly by. This page to stage adaptation should largely please fans of the Neapolitan series, finally seeing much loved characters brought to life in this interesting way, although some may feel the breadth of this world compressed into two plays is at the cost of emotional and narrative depth within the subplots. Nonetheless its hard not to be impressed by the achievement of this two part production of My Brilliant Friend, and its interesting techniques to imagine the vast world of Ferrante’s novels.

My Brilliant Friend Parts One and Two are at the National Theatre until 22 February with tickets from £15 per show. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


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