Tag Archives: National Theatre

Jack Absolute Flies Again – National Theatre

Delayed by covid for over two years, Jack Absolute Flies Again finally lands on the Olivier stage when we have never needed Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s goofy and hilarious romp more. An adaptation of Sheridan’s The Rivals relocated to a 1940s air base on a Sussex estate, there is a care in the construction of the play and a determination that everyone watching should have a good time that speaks to a wider need for lighter fare. And while the writers of Jack Absolute take their responsibility to represent the airmen of the Second World War seriously and with respect, the shenanigans of Sheridan fit remarkably well into their new context. After years of pandemic, economic woes and political free fall, the National knows that what we all need now is a good night out.

Restoration comedy is something the National has always done well, since Simon Godwin’s marvellous period appropriate production of The Beaux’ Stratagem delighted audiences. The Olivier Theatre is particularly well suited to the farcical revolving door plots with frequent comings and goings, mistaken identity tropes, eavesdroppers and exuberant characterisation that requires a speed and intricacy this space facilitates comfortably. In transferring the characteristics of Restoration comedy to a very particular twentieth-century setting, Bean and Chris have skillfully retained the sentiment, style and tone of Sheridan’s original while updating both the language and, to a notable degree, the morality and political subtext of The Rivals.

Most importantly, Bean and Chris have avoided the trap of the pointless period setting that afflicts most adaptations of Shakespeare primarily but other classic playwrights too, in conscientiously sewing their story into the era in which it is set, recognising and actively responding to the enduring quirks and foibles of human nature as well as the desire to love and be loved that underpins as much of our contemporary theatre as it did at the time of the Restoration.

The Battle of Britain connotations and long held concepts of the chivalric hero-pilot also bring with them their own set of expectations that Jack Absolute both neatly folds into its interpretation and actively challenges in the way that Bean and Chris create characters and define their interaction. The collective memory and consequent memorialisation of airmen tropes were formed in the later years of the First World War and came to dominate perspectives on the role of the pilot in the ensuing years until the Battle of Britain cemented notions of untainted glory, sacrifice and individual courage.

This staging, by coincidence appearing at the same time as another kind of airman fantasy – Top Gun: Maverick which is still in cinemas – plays into these audience preconceptions to an extent by creating a group of largely posh young men larking about in the English countryside with sports and afternoon tea before gallantly slipping into their aircraft and putting their lives on the line to protect it all from enemy violation – and it is notable that they succeed at least in preventing any direct incursions into Malaprop Hall for the duration of the play, saving this patch of green and pleasant land from bombs and preventing the tone from veering too sharply away from the jaunty choreographed confusion and misdirection of its Restoration form.

However, Bean and Chris push their scenario just enough to check the reality and consequences of the hero-pilot myth which expands the vision and sense of jeopardy, facilitating a nicely balanced emotional depth within the constructs of Jack Absolute. The first of these looks at class, making one of the central players a real character in his own right – the false Ensign Beverley in Sheridan’s original becomes ‘fitter’ Dudley, an RAF mechanic with whom both Lydia and maid Lucy fall in love. Though not a flier himself, several references are made to Dudley’s role in winning the war and the skill of the engineers in repairing planes, working class heroes keeping them running while acting in partnership with their pilot. This helps to expand the singular notion of airborne heroism to incorporate the wider teams and systems upon which war functionality is based.

The second uses video and projection technology to create two semi-immersive flight sequences that become integral to the plot and the emotional recognition of the characters, underscoring their entanglements and adding a tender but high-stakes reality that works against the levity of the lovers’ drama. Expanding beyond the confines of the stage to fill the walls and ceiling of the Olivier, Jeff Sugg’s footage of planes in combat sequences performed by the actors, is a device that neatly expands the world before us, surrounding we grounded folk who, like our Second World War counterparts, can only glance skywards as a melee of sound, lighting and video suggests vicious encounters with enemy aircraft. That Bean and Chris so deftly draw meaning and poignancy from their Restoration-inspired play and the fraught context in which it is newly situated is one the many achievements of a production that has both pathos and hilarity.

In updating the text, the writers have also given some consideration to female agency both as the instruments of the drama and in managing their own love lives. And while much of that is directed to comedic outcomes, the marriageability of the female roles and their contentment with expected notions of wife and motherhood are given a necessary shake up. Lydia Languish – always a spirited and independently-minded woman – adopts a more feminist perspective through her espousal of socialist principles that she only half believes. Although funny and an opportunity to create a series of scrapes for Lydia, including having her notions poo-poohed by the older generation, ultimately we are not asked to laugh at those aspects of her character, and Bean and Chris craft an ending for her that doesn’t betray her beliefs however little Lydia is shown to know her own heart throughout.

Likewise, maid Lucy is the agent of the drama, the character who confides in the audience most often and in whom rests an awareness of herself as a meta-theatrical tool, frequently commenting on the rules of Restoration comedy and the ‘magic’ of theatre. Lucy deliberately directs the action through the mis-delivery of letters which is done out of malice, jealousy and, usually, bloody mindedness, giving her a directional power over the play and its people. Mrs Malaprop who owns the Estate and Julia who wants nothing more than to marry her pilot cousin Roy may seem more traditional but Bean and Chris give them both a colourful, sexually liberated past as well as plenty of comedy in their own right, allowing them to pass as far more than secondary characters, ones who have a significant effect on the play’s male contingent.

The comedy in Jack Absolute largely emanates from a rapier-like wordplay with touches of controlled physical humour that build the farce to its pinnacle across two Acts staged largely on a single, unchanging set. And the jokes roll continually from the moment it begins as Mrs Malaprop welcomes us all to her home. A great deal of comedy comes from the increasingly inventive ways in which she mangles her vocabulary – some of it positively filthy but said in all innocence – and at times the audience is laughing so hard it is easy to miss a few jokes coming as quick-fire verbiage. And opportunities for humour are quite equitably spread around, the group of pilots each given individual comedic tics that mirror their Sheridan counterpart, as well the witty, often very daft interactions between the household member and military interlopers.

This is nicely balanced with an equally silly physical humour using disguise, character concealment behind bits of set and plenty of japes – anyone familiar with Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors will recognise the style, a lightness that doesn’t take itself too seriously. But Jack Absolute manages to remain consistent in the delivery of laughs at regular intervals throughout and consistently entertaining as the communal atmosphere builds within the auditorium. Replete with running jokes, this kind of comedy is by no means easily achieved or maintained, taking some skill to write escalating hilarity and you may find your cheeks hurt the next day for having laughed and smiled for more than 2.5 hours.

In staging Jack Absolute, it is wonderful to see the National do what it does best in harnessing the power and creativity of its in-house workshops and costume team for a gloriously cartoony but imaginative full set that covid restrictions and theatre fashion has denied for so long. Every inch of the Olivier stage is put to use with a large country house, shed and ‘tin’ office for the airmen in the grounds. The building are printed with flat imagery that imply a comic book inspiration but they magnificently unfold like dolls houses to allow interior sets to slide into place representing Lydia and Mrs Malaprop’s eventful bedchambers. It is all inventively and lusciously designed by Mark Thompson who simultaneously incorporates nods to grand Restoration-era furnishings – the perfect image of a lush English estate with croquet lawns and picnic spots mashed with the spare but evocative utility of the RAF in the 1940s.

This is a true ensemble piece directed by Emily Burns that keeps the energy high from start to finish with barely a moment’s lag across the evening. Caroline Quentin takes advantage of what is her best comic role, a delightful Mrs Malaprop whose rapacious appetites are pitched just right and Quentin never once betrays her character’s linguistic mauling by pushing jokes too hard, retaining a perfect and hysterical innocence at her conversational blunders. Peter Forbes matches her with his take on Jack’s frequently apoplectic and cantankerously old-school father, Sir Anthony, reimagined as an army office in appropriately brown uniform who develops an excellent rapport with Quentin.

Laurie Davidson is a charming hero, full of verve but with an emotional depth that creates audience investment in his story, neatly capturing how the pilots’ relaxed pursuits on the ground were frequently interrupted by the need to fly, and Davidson, like his colleagues, captures that instant switch to professionalism and duty. Natalie Simpson’s Lydia is suitably spirited and humorously full of her own importance while Kerry Howard’s Lucy wins over the audience completely as the cheeky maid. Kelvin Fletcher proves a fine unwitting patsy to Jack’s schemes while pilots Bob (James Corrigan), Bikram (Akshay Sharan) and Roy (Jordan Metcalfe) along with their grounded commander Coventry (Tim Steed) are distinct, sweet and full of adorable quirks.

This premiere staging of Jack Absolute may have had to circle the runway before gaining permission to land but land it really does and fate has delivered it at just the time. Utterly joyous, Bean and Chris’s play is the National Theatre at its best, a sparky Restoration comedy that finds hilarity and poignancy among the pilots of the RAF. Exactly what we need and more, Jack Absolute Flies Again is certainly a high flyer, in fact it’s ace!

Jack Absolute Flies Again is playing at the National Theatre until 3 September with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Film Review: Death of England: Face to Face

One of the great theatre series of the past eighteen months, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ The Death of England universe adds a new perspective by bringing together characters Michael and Delroy for the first time in a hybrid film, Face to Face, given a one-night only cinema release ahead of its free Sky Arts broadcast on 25 November. Building on two fierce monologues premiering either side of the first lockdown, this latest edition extends the vivid world of two friends struggling to connect when race, identity, family ties and concepts of Britishness come between them. Filmed in the closed Lyttleton Theatre, Face to Face joins the the National Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet as a co-production with Sky Arts that blurs and extends the boundaries between theatre and film, being made available to audiences for free in one of Dyer’s first projects as Deputy Artistic Director.

Although a piece that can standalone, there is value in some familiarity with the preceding plays with the story picking up shortly after the conclusion of Death of England: Delroy which memorably (and briefly) reopened the National Theatre last autumn and christened the Olivier’s in-the-round space. Fascinating explorations of working class masculinity and legacy, the separation of the two friends stems from Michael’s rant at his father’s funeral, directed at his best friend, and from Delroy missing the birth of his baby daughter due to an officious police stop and search detailed in his monologue.

The expectation that Face to Face will involve a decisive clash between Delroy and Michael is part of the set-up as Dyer and Williams look to explore notions of male rage and the recourse to violence that stems from feelings of isolation and otherness that merely perpetuate rather than resolve issues. Filmed in Delroy’s flat during the course of several hours in which Michael unexpectedly brings his niece to see her father for the first time, Dyer and Williams’ third instalment is primarily a linguistic piece in which (as is their style) both characters report events in retrospect while dramatically reproducing voices of other unseen characters and each other’s. As a director, Dyer retains this approach to a point but uses film techniques to create drive and visual interest by placing multiple versions of Delroy and Michael on screen simultaneously.

We see the pair in the present speaking to the viewer and casting aspersions on the other’s testimony while at the same time looking back to hours before to replay the scenario they are describing. Only, when Michael remembers these events, he continues to speak for Delroy with his voice coming from Delroy’s lips and vice versa, linking back to the original stage plays in their use of mimicry to tell multi-character stories. It’s a technique that takes some getting used to, but is used sparringly enough that it rarely jars but references the particular theatrical language of Dyer and Williams’ writing style.

The version control of Michaels and Delroys at different points in time is also drawn from this context, and a feature of both earlier Death of England stories has been this tendency to talk about events in retrospect during which the individual slips into dialogue as though it were the dramatic present. In Face to Face, that idea is given a visual signature by editing and layering shots of the actors together to imply the present and past versions co-existing rather than using flashback techniques or a more simplified chronological structure. Here, it also creates a jauntiness that highlights the comedy in the writing, where Delroy or Michael can comment on their own behaviour in the recent past and, crucially, each others by raising an ironic eyebrow or appearing from unusual places.

The overall effect can be hit and miss but it does two important things; first in utilising camera techniques unavailable if this were purely a stage piece that offer an alternative visual means to tell this story, while, secondly, questioning the veracity and integrity of the storyteller. One thing audiences have learned from meeting Delroy and Michael separately are the areas where their accounts complement or contradict one another through the information they choose to share or omit. As a theatre studies exercise, placing these three plays side-by-side like oral history testimonies highlights these differences, suggesting an ultimate truth lies somewhere between all of them while acknowledging the validity of individual interpretations and, most importantly, noting that each successive play offers character as well as dramatic development in the overall story.

There is an integral he said / he said structure at work, but both Delroy and Face to Face chronologically move the story on, so while Alan’s funeral and Michael’s speech as well as Delroy’s confrontation with Michael at the hospital where his daughter is born are continual references, key turning points in the friendship and the narrative, each new play takes place months later, giving the story fresh momentum. The comprehensiveness of this universe and the vivid nature of the surrounding characters is such that new scenarios for them appear to grow organically from what has gone before. By the end of Face to Face, we know both men a little better, not only how they have dealt with the consequences of their individual stories, guilt and separation, but the audience is shown their friendship, how they interact and respond to one another when their pal is physically present in front of them which moves the Death of England series from memory plays in which individuals look backwards, to a construct where activities in the present equally shape the outcomes and suggested future direction of their relationship.

We see this shift from past to present, from reflection to forward-looking across the film through the change in their friendship, which seemed hostile and broken beyond repair, moving first to common ground and rapprochement and then to camaraderie and mutual support as the pair must unite to take care of the baby and deal with the persistent angry neighbour upstairs. And it is a slow thawing as the issues of identity, race, family and betrayal play out, so while these were already rich and multifaceted characters, from their interaction, the banter and teasing, comes an extraordinary affection as well.

These two people know each other incredibly well, best friends for more than half their lives and as the previous instalments have demonstrated, they can hurt each other more deeply than anyone. But underneath the bile, outrage and anger, these men are forever connected, not quite two halves of a whole but a partnership that may change or even lapse yet remains solid at its foundation. Face to Face reminds Michael and Delroy that for all the things they have allowed to come between them and to distinguish them, ultimately they are more the same than different, grown in the same soil of their East London neighbourhood and better together than apart. And while all of that may sound grandiose or even overly romantic, Dyer and Williams rarely make it so in practice, couching their tale in explorations of male violence and the effects of bandwagoning when so much else is at stake.

When we meet them in Chapter 1 entitled ‘The Aftermath’, Delroy’s flat is in considerable disarray as though an altercation of some kind has taken place. With it comes certain expectations about the cause of that disruption against which Dyer and Williams must work, managing and subverting our expectations about the next 80-minutes. And, eventually, there is a well-staged confrontation that looks at why men commit violent acts, notions of tribal loyalties and the results of these encounters which only ever escalate rather than resolve a dispute.

More interesting though is the impulse control the leads experience in which the tendency to violence erupts instinctually and almost in spite of themselves. Too limited time is ultimately given to this debate but there are character insights into the nature and cultural expectations of modern masculinity, particularly when juxtaposed with a nurturing or caring role for Delroy’s new baby. This muddies the waters for them all and suggests a future direction for these stories exploring manliness in transition as age and responsibility alter their view of themselves and their primary purpose as men.

Face to Face is a chance for Giles Terera to return to a role that ill-health prevented him from playing and was instead assumed by his understudy Michael Balogun who gave an astonishing performance to reopen the National Theatre with Death of England: Delroy – now both actors are touring in a two-character piece. Terera has lost none of his feel for Delroy and here the character has somewhat mellowed, taken beyond the painful and incendiary circumstances that preceded the birth of his child. Stuck alone in lockdown, Delroy is now calmer, more at ease with his paternal status and ready to revisit his feelings about the Fletcher family.

Terera plays the street-smart Delroy as a man maturing as the story unfolds, able to put the past into a different perspective to find the long connection to it, the integrated experience of shared memory and friendship with Michael and sister Carly that will continue to shape his future. But Delroy is also concerned with legacy and the world that he is creating, so while Terera finds comedy in the appearance of Alan’s mouth on his baby which links seamlessly with the conclusion of the previous play, he also acknowledges the impact of the baby’s presence in defining not just who Delroy is but who he now needs to be.

Neil Maskell also inherits the role of Michael from Rafe Spall who launched the series in terrific style with the powerful series opener in February 2020. But Michael too is a different man now, chastened and regretful about his past actions and seeing his niece as an opportunity to make amends with his best friend. Maskell’s Michael is almost a broken man by this point, certainly some energy or feeling within him has died since the manic funeral oration that severed his friendship. We got an inkling of someone trying to turn their life around through Delroy’s earlier monologue and Maskell gives him an inner calm and compassion, a man who has learned things about himself that he doesn’t particularly like and now wants to atone.

He feels like the junior partner sometimes, waiting for Delory’s lead but while ashamed, he recognises the value of this long friendship in defining who he is now, their shared memories and experiences integral to Michael’s personality and confidence. But Michael is still haunted by his overbearing parents and we briefly glimpse both mother and father in cutaways – played by Maggie Saunders and the wonderful Phil Daniels. These flashes of memory and unresolved issues with Alan continue to shape the lives of both men, while Maskell also draws on the greater exploration of the relationship with sister Carly (Amy Newton) who now connects the friends. This strong Fletcher family dynamic drives Maskell’s Michael, seeing their new blood link as a means to repair the relationship and, while tentative, Michael is the most forward-looking of the two as he seeks reconciliation and a more stable future connection, something he is prepared to physically fight for.

Death of England: Face to Face may be most meaningful to those with an understanding of the character histories but does offer both a satisfying conclusion and future possibilities for the series. Should Dyer and Williams turn their hand to a female voice, then Carly seems an obvious choice, although domineering Alan may eventually earn his own prequal. Primarily, the continuation of this story in a new hybrid format after showing Delroy for free during the second lockdown, further emphasises the growing adaptability of the Death of England collection as it explores the changing demands of British identity.

Death of England: Face to Face was screened in cinemas on 2 November and will be broadcast via Sky Arts on 25 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Normal Heart – National Theatre

The Normal Heart - National Theatre

Creating socio-political change and even recognition doesn’t just happen, somewhere, sometime, someone has to fight for it, and history is full of organisations who since the end of absolute monarchies (and arguably even before) have tried to make their voices heard. Activists, anarchists, revolutionaries, freedom fighters, radicals, call them what you will, ultimately they all face the same question – do you use peaceable means to lull the government into meetings and reasonably state your case, or incite protest and even violence to force the issue? Larry Kramer’s powerful play The Normal Heart, which celebrates its 35-year anniversary with a National Theatre revival, explores this issue as a group of New Yorkers in the early 80s try to draw attention to a deadly virus stalking the gay community.

With press night later this week, expect to hear plenty of references to Angels in America, It’s a Sin and The Inheritance as recent stage and screen representations of the same era, as well as obvious allusions to our experience of the last 18-months. And while The Normal Heart indeed has much in common with these approaches in its character-driven structure on an epic scale, Kramer’s exploration of the nuances, barriers and conflicts within the community set this play apart, looking as much at the political organisation of awareness campaigns and pressure groups as the stories of the men disagreeing about how they should fight for their lives.

From the Luddites to the Suffragettes, the Diggers to the Chartists, organisations demanding change have always found themselves divided on the issue of whether the end justifies the means. The Chartists in particularly were hugely conflicted between William Lovett’s peaceable and domestic aims for social reform which included Sunday schools and educational improvement of the working classes, and those of fellow-leader Fergus O’Connor whose more explosive approach pushed physical force as a means of ratifying the People’s Charter. And here, in The Normal Heart, Kramer expands on a similar division between the hot-headed Alexander ‘Ned’ Weeks and the closeted Bruce Niles who become co-leaders of a single organisation that pulls in two contentious directions.

The story runs chronologically from 1981-1984 during a period when political and medical groups refused to acknowledge the presence of an epidemic moving through a community they equally pretended did not exist. But the virus itself had yet to be properly identified and the consequences of this are the context for Kramer’s play, focusing on a period of considerable uncertainty as cases were doubling rapidly in New York and the first deaths occurred. As authority figures remained unmoved, refusing even to fund pioneering medical experiments, how to break through that wall of silence is the play’s dramatic driver. The formation of an advocacy and support group for the community becomes increasingly bureaucratic, and Kramer astutely balances their growing frustration with government process and the unpreparedness of its members for the scale of the fight as the disease takes hold, intricately combining the personal and the political.

The distinction Kramer draws between radical and peaceable protest is managed through the subtly changing nature of the organisation that Ned and Bruce start together. What was – to paraphrase one of Ned’s impassioned speeches – a start-up in his living room becomes a formal, almost corporate-style entity with the introduction first of a President-figure as the acceptable public face of a charitable concern, and later a Board who manage operations and personnel. As the game and its scale changes, the balance between activism and lobbying makes miniscule shifts throughout the play; where once the group distributed newsletters, Kramer raises the stakes, so as more men are infected, their organisation is simultaneously required to adapt its behaviour and tactics for a bigger audience, becoming increasingly embroiled in government petitions and appeals.

What this means for the characters is equally defining and while O’Connor’s belief in physical force created a temporary swell for the Chartists, Ned’s outspokenness is seen to be detrimental to himself and his movement. Kramer manages this with care; Ned is the anchor of the play, an isolated figure in many ways who espouses some extreme views on abstinence that ruffle feathers, but Kramer never judges his lead and, in fact, Ned’s claims are never shown to be wrong – in fact much of what he says proves in time to be correct – only his refusal to play by the rules and allow others to bury their heads in the sand, mark him out as an agitator who knows the only way to achieve his aim quickly is to forego the social niceties and create a public disturbance.

Bruce, by contrast, is the role model leader, a man concealing his sexuality to maintain a lifestyle. With a well-paid job at a leading bank, a reputation to protect and plenty of business contacts, Bruce is an inside man, someone who knows how to charm the mayor’s office or a journalist into taking a meeting where he can gently apply the right kind of pressure to advance their cause. While Ned questions Bruce’s bravery and desire for privacy, the context Kramer creates for him in that particular professional world in the early 1980s makes sense of Bruce as a character and his desire to use the proper channels.

And this contrast leads to considerable nuance in the presentation of the community, drawing out strands of disagreement and discontent not often seen in equivalent works. Far from one homogenous group, Kramer looks deeply at what is a fractured and confused community of men, some believing that waiting and watching is the best course of action while cases are low and undefined, while others like Ned know this is the start of something bigger. Kramer here is looking at the process of hindsight, noting that it is easy to look back and think more should have been done sooner, but the variety of responses he presents in The Normal Heart consider how little concrete information was really available during those years and how difficult it was to pitch a suitable response.

Kramer’s play also considers this a crisis point in the external presentation of gay lifestyles with the fear that promiscuity was creating a negative and limited perspective on sexuality as primarily a physical act. Despite his more active approach, Ned is the one who wants to expand the impression of same-sex relationships, making another impassioned speech about the contributions of writers, scientists and creatives who he feels connected to and wanting to continue the growth of a cultural identity that extends beyond sex. By contrast, the character of Mickey Marcus in particular feels tainted by what he sees as Ned’s judgemental stance and in an important middle section talks about having fought for the right to be open and free, and struggles with now being labelled a ‘murderer’ and shamed for it.

In Dominic Cooke’s new production in-the-round on the Olivier stage, all of these themes are given the space to emerge and overlap during the show’s near three hour running time. There are lots of knotty debates and interlocking strands, but there is clarity in how these very different ideas are shaped within the play as Kramer treats the broad ranges of opinion and belief espoused by his characters with compassion. They may be united by a social scene but they have very different backgrounds and attitudes, amplified by the exposing nature of the playing space.

As a director Cooke, whose earlier success in this auditorium includes the incomparable Follies, has a feel for the emotional currents within a play and the different illusions that characters have about themselves and their situations, especially at the moment these are shattered or re-routed. Cooke finds those beats in The Normal Heart, creating a minimal visual impression in order to fill the space with character arcs, social shifts and the emotional impact of a story that successfully balances the complicated process of dissidence and protest with the often devastating everyday impact on the lives of the men trying to fighting these bigger battles on all fronts.

Designed by Vicki Mortimer (who also worked with Cooke on Follies), the simple marbled floor and benches have a dual purpose, simultaneously representing the foyer of grand buildings like City Hall, where Ned and Bruce must fight for recognition, and the conventional business-like locations that symbolise Bruce’s background and the governance structure that evolves within the advocacy group. There is a coldness and formality in Mortimer’s design that underscores the character’s struggles for official support, but there is also a subtle tomb-like feel to the staging that acts as a memorial to the countless men referenced yet never seen who die in the course of the play, enhanced further by the continuous flame that burns above the action throughout.

Delayed by the pandemic, Ben Daniels has swapped a previously announced part in the upcoming Manor for the role of Ned in The Normal Heart and it is a worthy exchange. Daniels’s Ned has a true and unyielding conviction, a man of extreme emotional states who believes in his causes as ardently as he eventually comes to love Felix. That slow opening up is something Daniels presents extremely well, and while never disconnected from the suffering of his friends, his relationship gives him a different perspective on the urgency of official support and acknowledgement. Daniels’s Ned can be harsh, even cruel in his desire to shake others out of their complacency while his fervency is sometimes misguided, but appearing in almost every scene Daniels fills the room with Ned’s burning zeal, while delivering his very fine speeches with sensitivity.

Luke Norris is equally skilful as Bruce navigating a complex position between two very different societies. Although there is very limited time to see his more emotional side, Norris creates plenty of empathy for Bruce, struggling to balance his public life with what he believes is the right and only direction for the advocacy group. His frustrations with Ned conceal an admiration for him, and there are some explosive and tender moments between the men that Norris weaves into a very meaningful performance.

Daniel Monks is superb as ever in the role of Mickey diligently supporting the administration of the organisation while feeling increasingly burdened by the polarisation of opinion. Danny Lee Wynter adds flair as the Southern Tommy Boatwright able to lighten the mood with a sharp riposte while Liz Carr brings a crusading spirit and authority to the role of Dr Emma Brookner. Robert Bowman also adds plenty of depth as Ned’s brother Ben who represents a more traditional standpoint but tries to understand this alternative perspective.

As with any in-the-round production, the blocking here tends to favour the traditional auditorium so those in the onstage seating won’t see the actor’s faces during many of the big speeches, but it barely detracts from the impact of this incredible play. Looking at the process of recognition and political activism during a period where almost no information was available, The Normal Heart offers a different perspective on these early days of HIV and, like the scores of political groups before them, leaves the audience wondering whether violent or orderly protest is the best way to be heard.

The Normal Heart is at the National Theatre until 6 November with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Under Milk Wood – National Theatre

Under Milk Wood - National Theatre (by Viktor Gardsater)

There is something very comforting about walking over Waterloo Bridge and seeing the lights blazing in the National Theatre once more, and while full capacity audiences may still be some time away, the reopening of two of its three spaces in quick succession and the recent announcement of a year-long season, means this premiere venue is very much back in business. Only able to open one of its stages in the past 16-months, the resumption of performances in the Dorfman earlier in June with the premiere of Jack Thorne’s poignant new play After Life was a notable success. Now, the Olivier is also back online following its transformation into a 500-seat in-the-round space which briefly welcomed the Death of England: Delroy and Dick Whittington before successive lockdowns prematurely ended both runs. It returns with a beautifully pitched adaptation of the Dylan Thomas drama Under Milk Wood originally written for radio.

Premiering in 1954, Thomas’s much adapted drama has been produced many times as theatre, film, animation and even an album, and has featured renowned performers in the role of ‘First Voice’ including Thomas himself, Richard Burton, Antony Hopkins and most recently Michael Sheen for the BBC who also heads this National Theatre cast. Like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town which had a solid revival at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2019, Under Milk Wood explores the various families and experiences in a single village as a community is both dissected by its author and comes together to work, to gossip and to pass the time.

Taking place across 24-hours, liked Wilder, Thomas uses the structure of the day to suggest the endless routine of the villagers in Llareggub, a sense that their lives are ordinary, small and lacking in notable drama while also unchanging, solid and predictable. Mr and Mrs Pugh snipe at each other over every meal, Captain Cat sits in the same chair listening to the sounds of the world outside, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard cleans her guest-less guesthouse and Mrs Cherry Owen watches her husband get drunk. On the surface, their lives are unremarkable, a place where nothing changes as day becomes night and night becomes day.

Yet, within the confines of this tale, Thomas expands the inner lives and needs of his characters, each haunted by the loss of a loved one, the dream of an unfulfilled life or the expectation of a future happiness that never comes. There is real tenderness in the way Thomas explores these wistful remembrances and the ghostly presence that haunts them all. But far from lifeless and in their own ways frozen in time, their existence in memories, hopes and illusions suffused with these emotion makes them seem more alive than ever.

Lyndsey Turner’s production for the National Theatre understands this completely. Before Thomas can ‘begin at the beginning’ there is some valuable scene setting to be done which gives the evocation of Milk Wood, the village of Llareggub and its community an added purpose by adding a frame, a tool through which the audience can view a wider context and purpose. This additional material written by Sian Owen bookends the play, focusing on Owain Jenkins’s attempts to renew a severed connection with his ailing father Richard. More than an amusing story of yesteryear, the telling of Under Milk Wood thus becomes a heartwarming act of love.

Owen’s sets her adaptation in a Care Home, a place pointedly filled with forgotten people, their age determining that their best years are behind them and, while treated kindly by the nursing staff, there is little to distinguish them from one another. The ten residents shuffle around, watch television and sit in their favourite chair with hobbies and crafts to pass the time – and already the daily trajectory of these characters echoes Thomas’s villagers. Owen’s big idea is to disrupt the routine with the arrival early one morning of Owain Jenkins demanding to see his father out of hours.

This cleverly sets in motion the circumstances that will lead to the slow recreation of Milk Wood and Llareggub as Owain’s desperation to form a lucid connection to the bewildered Richard takes them to a photograph album and ultimately to the famous beginning of Thomas’s drama where, to prompt his father’s memory, Owain assumes the role of First Voice and takes his father back in time hoping to provoke some shared memories of the place and its people. It is a lovely idea, one that gives renewed purpose and distinction to this retelling and is consistently maintained throughout the production as Owain becomes both Richard and the audience’s guide to the world of Llareggub while investing the original narrator character with an emotional investment in the retelling of this story.

Aware of its radio play origins and the lush vocabulary and rhythms of Thomas’s writing, Turner avoids the temptation to ‘act’ the entirety of the piece in the conventional sense. Instead, the simplicity of the Care Home is maintained for far longer than you might expect and Turner doesn’t succumb to audience expectation for some theatre magic to clear away the day room and replace it with the colourful houses and characters of Llareggub immediately. Instead, Turner tries to offer the viewer the best of both worlds, relying on Owain to set the scene using only Thomas’s descriptions, making this part audio drama that requires the audience to use their imagination to conjure the scene – much as Ellen McDougall’s production of Our Town did.

Enhancing the effect, residents and Care Home workers steadily assume the persona of the Under Milk Wood characters, fleetingly at first as they are momentarily enchanted as they pass by Owain, physically adjusting to a new role as he anoints each one with an alter ego like statues coming to life or somnambulists gently reviving before the moment passes and they go on their way. As Owain describes the villagers’ dreams, Turner controls the flow of the early segments of Thomas’s work with care, introducing faint fragments of sound that begin to break down the barrier between past and present, transporting the audience in stages to Llareggub before its inhabitants come to life in full which is timed to coincide with the dawn.

Under Milk Wood doesn’t have a single plot as such so what follows is a series of scenes that meet the same characters at different points in their day, controlled in flows of activity that cross the Olivier stage, all conjured by Owain. There is some clever stagecraft from the National team, particularly set designer Merle Hensel who dispenses with fixed backdrops and uses a series of illustrative props to represent the roles or activities of the villagers. Fluidity is created with rotating table tops and cloths whipped off to instantly move the scene to another household, while actors sharing the same piece of furniture can be in entirely different family set-ups as Thomas light-footedly skips between homes.

This building sense of community and multiple lives being lived simultaneously is well managed in Turner’s production which finds a strong balance between comedy and pathos. The mismatched Pughs are particularly memorable as Cleo Sylvestre’s acidic and controlling wife becomes a bane to Alan David’s scheming husband, ordering books on poisoning and dreaming of dispensing with his spouse. But it is some of the darker moments that linger most and, supported by Tim Lutkin’s lighting design that evolves from the warm orange of daybreak and the spring morning to starker blues and near blackout for the introspective moments, the layers of memory and regret in Thomas’s work are acutely felt.

Particularly affecting is Polly Garter played with a sharp nostalgic yearning by Sian Phillips who sings for her lost loves while evoking all the loneliness of her current and future state. Likewise, Susan Brown’s Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard is tormented by the ghosts of two lost husbands, paralysed by grief as the sun finally goes down, while Antony O’Donnell’s Captain Cat meaningfully observers the village from his window while remembering his lost shipmates and deceased lover Rosie (Kezrena James). Turner’s production has vibrancy and life but is underscored by a fragility, a consciousness that these are just fragments or ghosts exuding from Owain’s mind, a people lost long ago that will dissolve in an instant, and it gives this production a sorrowfulness that is quite affecting.

Nowhere is this more tangibly realised than in the relationship between Owain and Richard that is threaded through the entire piece as a worried son tries to help his father find his way back to their shared memory. Both are on stage for almost the entire show as onlookers in the village scenes, like Scrooge and the trilogy of Christmas Ghosts observing the things that have been. Turner and Owen have together created a strong purpose as Owain tries to provoke his father’s memory which overlays Thomas’s own anthology approach to structurally and emotionally pin this expanded production of Under Milk Wood together, driven by the reawakening of and reconnection with Richard.

Michael Sheen is superb as Owain and gives Thomas’s words a mellifluous reading in what is a complex and demanding role that is as much a feat of stamina and memory as performance. There is excitement and enthusiasm for the village, amusement at its people and poignancy in its more tragic undercurrents, and Sheen eases the audience through all of the changes in pace, tone and direction that Thomas demands. When he accidentally assumes the role of alcoholic Mr Cherry Owen there is some mirroring of Owain’s own personality, himself a secret drinker whose regretful reflections take on a valuable duality.

Yet, some of the very best moments are entirely unscripted and the absorption in Owain’s character is such that Sheen looks constantly to Karl Johnson’s Richard for his reactions to the appearance of every new Llareggub resident. Much of this may go largely unnoticed by an audience distracted by the village scene playing out centre stage, but Sheen is immersed in Owain’s emotional state and commitment to the psychology of his character who hopes that something will trigger in his father’s mind. These tiny moments of care and concern are happening throughout Sheen’s performance, manifesting as Owain’s reason for creating this story and demonstrating a son’s act of love for his father that becomes quietly moving.

Johnson has much less dialogue and hardly speaks at all but emotes all the confusion of his character who sits on the sidelines for large parts of the play unsure what is happening. But Johnson is acting all the time, sometimes lost in Richard’s own world, sometimes captivated by the snatches of something he recognises which develop as the story unfolds, taking him to some unexpected places. There is lots of saddness in Johnson’s portrayal of Richard, a heartfelt pity for the things he has lost but Johnson gives him some hope as well, creating real theatrical power in his final moments with Sheen.

Making Under Milk Wood a story within a story is a risk but one that pays off, adding a tender father-son connection that ties that multifaceted sprawl of Thomas’s story together. The rich tones of Thomas’s language and the splintered nature of the drama may not be to everyone’s taste but it is really exciting to see an older cast being given the opportunity to play characters of all ages. They are utterly convincing as the wide-ranging and lively inhabitants of Llareggub, while subtly reinforcing Owen and Turner’s Care Home concept of individuality revived. After Life and Under Milk Wood are meaningful and compassionate pieces, a strong return to live performance for the National Theatre whose lights are blazing once more.

Under Milk Wood is at the National Theatre until 24 July and is largely sold out but returns are available and the show is part of the Friday Rush scheme. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Romeo & Juliet – National Theatre

Romeo & Juliet - National Theatre (by Rob Youngson)

Almost exactly a year ago the National Theatre unknowingly instigated a significant change in the way that we create and consume theatre when it made its 2011 production of One Man Two Guvnors freely available online for a few days. That day home digital theatre as we now know it was born and 16-weeks of archive showings followed, joined first by venues all over the country sharing pre-recorded material and before long the development and live streaming of brand new content. 12 months later hundreds of shows have been produced, some through established venues, others created by small companies seizing the opportunity to share their performances using video calling platforms and streaming channels, some live, some pre-recorded and made available on demand. In some ways theatre will never be the same.

The National Theatre has lead this kind of innovation before when it created its National Theatre Live service to record and distribute productions to cinemas. And in the last year, this new online community of supporters was officially recognised with the launch of its on-demand streaming service – National Theatre at Home – the natural culmination of this international interest in watching past productions. The National also advanced the creation and sharing of new commissions when lockdown regulations preemptively ended its runs of Death of England: Delroy and the second pantomime in its history Dick Whittington, both of which were streamed for free.

Now the National looks again to the future with a hybrid production of Romeo & Juliet conceived and filmed during November’s lockdown and broadcast in the UK on Sky Arts with a PBS American premiere to follow later in the month. Based on a production originally announced for last summer that was derailed by the pandemic, this hybrid film directed by Simon Godwin (Antony and Cleopatra) retains the services of intended stars Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor and in using the large Lyttleton Theatre, follows in the footsteps of Ian Rickson’s Uncle Vanya for the BBC and even more pertinently Curve Leicester’s Sunset Boulevard in Concert in acknowledging the theatre space that contains it.

What makes this beautiful 90-minute film especially interesting for theatre is its collaborative process of creation in which actors, director, creative team and crucially, the cinematographer worked together throughout the rehearsal and filming period to develop a vision for a piece that manages to be inherently theatrical and a successful movie experience. This combination of quite different technical skills and requirements is a potentially exciting byproduct of filmed theatre where different kinds of creative input and the development of transferable skills can shift perspectives on how a show can use different narrative and visual techniques to tell a story.

Adapted by Emily Burns for the screen, this production manages to successfully combine both strands of Romeo & Juliet, creating a love story that is believable despite its slight premise and a context of simmering violence in which the two families openly contend and it is rare to see both so well conceived in the same production. In fact, what sets the National’s new version apart is just how inextricably linked they are, moving beyond a surface reading of the text in which the lovers are separated by family enmity, to demonstrate throughout that the emotional extremes that project the ferocity of Romeo and Juliet’s love and the burning hate between Capulet and Montague are equivalent and unruled passions with only one deadly outcome.

This darkness imbues the 95-minute film from its earliest moments as a cast of players gather in a National Theatre rehearsal room to perform this story for themselves alone. As Lucian Msamati’s Friar begins the play’s famous prologue, scenes from the inevitable future flash across the screen, anticipating what is to come but also giving this production a driving predestination. It is a technique the film uses in several crucial moments as both Romeo and Juliet foresee momentary snatches of their future echoing back to them as physical actions in the present such as Juliet lamenting Romeo’s departure, laying across the bed with an arm outstretched just as she will a few hours ahead when taking her fateful sleeping draft.

In slimming this lengthy play to a curt running time, Burns has had to jettison vast amounts of text particularly from the secondary characters and instead hones in on the initiation and development of what is here an intense love story, though even the soliloquies are reduced largely to the essential narrative requirements and well-known lines. But it has been skillfully done and Burns never loses the psychological purpose of the characters or the complexity of their interactions with their families or the social, religious and political structures of the city.

That this version of Verona is a savage place is abundantly clear, and while the editing choices mean that Mercutio and Tybalt in particular are dispatched far too soon and with so little time to give further substance to their individual personalities, Burns’s approach shuts down all avenues of escape or hope for the lovers unable to turn to their cold families or flick-knife wielding friends for assistance. Even the comedy of the Nurse is mostly put aside in order to imprison the leads and drive them to destruction.

As a first time film director with extensive understanding of staging and eliciting the emotional complexity of Shakespeare’s characters, Godwin has achieved something remarkable in this movie by marrying his understanding of stage intimacy with the much smaller scale projection that a camera demands. Some of our most creative directors regularly and very successfully move between theatre and film, and the influence of both forms of art can be seen in the complexity of the work they produce. Comparing Sam Mendes work on The Ferryman or The Lehman Trilogy and 1917 it is possible to see how they influence each other, a feeling of orchestration where Mendes is able to control the grand narrative while still drawing-out the intricacy of the human stories within it. Danny Boyle has a similar vision in his stage and film work, and comparing Frankenstein with Steve Jobs there is an intuitive understanding of visual design and the impact of theatrical spaces that is enhanced by a considered technical understanding of lighting, perspective and narrative devices.

Godwin has developed a similar eye and uses the theatre space here in quite an unusual way to create the scale of theatre with the proximity of bodies engaged in acts of affection, love and destruction. The conceit in this Romeo & Juliet is that the rehearsal room and its plain-clothed actors becomes the colourful world of Verona although Godwin holds back in marking this change until the party scene at the Capulets where the lovers first encounter one another. And while the actors have transitioned fully into their characters only to return briefly in the film’s closing scene, the stage area still quite deliberate forms the boundaries of their existence as Shakespeare implies in several plays – the opening Chrous of Henry V being the most famous.

Filmed in the Lyttelton Theatre, you will be hard pressed to recognise much of it, the playing space demarcated by iron doors that are the limits of Verona from which the costumed Romeo is eventually exiled into an adjoining but empty ante-room where he has no means of escape. That crucial scenes take place amidst the scenery struts in a thin corridor and on metal gantries cleverly imply how tangential the business of the family rivalry becomes to the lovers whose own scenes are fully staged in realised rooms – they are each other’s reality and while Romeo in particular traverses these other spaces, it is in these other more tangible locations that sadly for his friends his priorities, mind and purpose belong.

When Godwin shows the lovers together it is with close-ups so tight the viewer is almost within their embraces, the fierceness of their passion – as with his Antony and Cleopatra – unbounded by reason or parental order. But in what can often be a relationship that is hard to invest in, the proximity of Godwin’s lens gives these scenes a different level of intensity, an all or nothing consuming purpose that makes the brief time they have known one another seem irrelevant. Their relationship is desperate, urgent and ungovernable but surrounded by danger that is reflected in Godwin’s shot choices that build on his own experience as a theatre director.

Visually, this version of Romeo & Juliet is incredibly stylish but design is used in ways that enhances the story – a Soutra Gilmour trademark – using particular colours and tonal palettes. Romeo is always dressed in a pale hues with white, beige and brown that reflect the softer, dreamier nature of his personality while Juliet is given shades of emerald green primarily that set her against the magical masked ball and later the simpler tones of the other characters. The production is beautifully lit in a way that only stage lighting can ever achieve, contrasting the warmth and moonlit romance of the brief courtship with the stark daylight that intrudes so cruelly as the machinations of their families comes between them.

Jessie Buckley is a remarkable Juliet, not the childlike and romantic interpretation we often see but an intense and almost crazed interpretation that has a genuine maturity of feeling. This Juliet understands what is at stake in every moment of the play and Romeo’s appearance taps into a deep-rooted need within her that she is unable to control. There are hints that the coldness of her mother and flustering nurse have left Juliet craving a true affinity but Buckley finds levels of anxiety, fear and almost fanaticism in Juliet’s connection to Romeo, her mind spinning with worry that he won’t arrange their marriage and later almost clawing at herself as she becomes hemmed in by the proposed match with Paris. Buckley’s Juliet seems always on the edge of despair, not exactly fragile but driven by a gnawing mania that takes her towards destruction like Cathy in Wuthering Heights. There is clearly a Lady Macbeth at some point in her future.

Josh O’Connor’s Romeo is less soulfully troubled but is equally thwarted by the interventions of fate. His own family connection is downplayed here so instead Romeo is struggling to balance the aggressive manly posturing expected of him and the softer feelings he has first for Rosaline and then for Juliet. O’Connor is particular good at these tender-hearted moments as the brooding Romeo of the opening scene evolves into the intoxicated lover, speaking the verse with real feeling that brings a credibility to their love-at-first-sight relationship. We see O’Connor’s Romeo act impulsively in his love for Juliet and in defence of his friend, both of which remain entirely consistent with his gentler nature, while the consequences of his rashness are convincingly depicted when his marriage to Juliet becomes his last refuge and hope.

Although the supporting cast have relatively less screen time this cast of National Theatre regulars amply flesh-out Veronese society. Msamati has incredible gravitas as the slightly sinister Friar Laurence who defies protocol by aiding the lovers while concocting all manner of alarming potions in his cell, but there is just enough affection for the couple in Msamati’s performance that makes his support convincing while amplifying the conspiratorial nature of the play that also puts him at risk if discovered. Tamsin Greig is brilliant as a calculating Lady Capulet whose softly spoken steel is enough to hold Tybalt (David Judge) back from murdering Romeo at the party and drips sufficient poison in her daughter’s ear to force her hand. We see too little of Deborah Findlay’s nurse, Adrian Lester’s furiously exasperated Prince and Fisayo Akinade’s Mercutio but each adds much to the texture of the overall production despite their limited screentime.

With Director of Photography Tim Sidell and Composer Michael Bruce in the rehearsal room, this hybrid theatre and film production has been a fascinating experiment resulting in a smart, interesting and entirely collaborative piece of art. The influence of digital theatre productions will be long, felt not only in the continuation of streaming in some form and the creation of blended movies like this one, but the techniques and approaches developed together. That’s not to say that all theatre productions will overtly incorporate filmic devices but through such open collaboration as the National has demonstrated here, directors, actors, designers and cinematographers learn from one another. From these perspectives new methods of storytelling are being born and it will be fascinating to see where it takes us.

Romeo & Juliet was created by the National Theatre and screened on Sky Arts on 4th April with a PBS screening the USA on 23 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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