Tag Archives: National Theatre

Othello – National Theatre

It’s an interesting decision for the National Theatre to tackle Othello again when their last production in 2013 still looms large in the memory even a decade on and available via subscription service, National Theatre at Home. But it was a lifetime ago in theatre terms, under a previous Artistic Director that existed in a quite different cultural and political context to Clint Dyer’s equally contemporary but far darker perspective on a play about systemic racism and the social system stacked against not just Othello but the women of the play as well. And this is a production that recognises its place in the history of performance, scattering the stage with a digital montage of Othello posters and playbills across the centuries including the RSC’s notable version in 2015 with a black actor playing Iago and interpretations from all around the world. Co-designed by Nina Dunn and Gino Ricardo Green, as the audience take their seats, it’s clear that Othello continues to reinvent itself for every generation and that its central messages matter more than ever.

There are a number of striking decisions in this new production designed to emphasise how greatly the scales are weighted against Othello as his rise to power is stymied by jealousy and racial denigration. It may take some time before the audience see them all but the National has deliberately eschewed diversity in its casting making Giles Terrera the only person of colour in the cast, a decision that reflects Othello’s isolation in the play and must have created some interesting tones in the rehearsal room, particularly for the lead actor exploring the unusual position of this character, a self-made man who rises to a position of influence in a world that views his race with suspicion and disdain – and we note early on that the Duke of Venice happily takes advantage of Othello’s military prowess but pointedly refuses to shake his hand.

And Director, Dyer digs deep into this notion in an attempt to deconstruct the inevitability of Othello’s decline despite his soldierly successes. In a brief scene that could have been lifted from Coriolanus, Movement Director Lucie Pankhurst choreographs a sequence in which Othello is successively cheered by the crowd and then jeered as his popularity rapidly wanes. Over the course of the show, Dyer then expands this concept, inserting a bank of silent characters known only as the ‘System’ who become a physical manifestation of the status quo with a vested interest in destroying Othello. They lurk like malevolent spirits behind Iago as he unfolds his dastardly plans to the audience, showing signs of joy and rapture as he derails Othello’s marriage and unbalances his mind, while leaning in hungry for the drama as the tension rises.

It works very effectively, adding both a broader sense of the Venetian society that Iago and Othello represent, mirroring the Duke of Venice’s willingness to use the title character but abstain from him, while drawing out the feeling of an Establishment closing ranks, actively keeping people like Othello on the outside, destroying them if need be. Dyer arranges his intimidating Chorus around Chloe Lamford’s dramatically tiered stage, who, perhaps like the witches in Macbeth, may be driving the action or merely observing it. But the stillness of their chilling presence also speaks to the growing confusion in Othello’s mind, almost becoming the physical representation of the poison that infects him when the sinister System bears down on him in the final portion of the play as he feels a kind of spiritual possession take hold.

They reach their apotheosis with the final deal done over the bodies of the dead. And it adds to the tragedy that, knowing the truth about Iago’s game, no one is then sorry about or for Othello. Here, quite the opposite, after the frenzy of that multiply-murderous scene, the remaining white men forget about the dead laying before them and merely offer new jobs to one another with congratulations. The final insult to Othello that his death, like his life, means nothing to those in the System because power is restored to those who always have it.

Although it may be Dyer’s intention to point the effects of the System towards Othello, the final section of this production also makes clear its effects on the play’s three female roles – Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca – who also suffer its suffocating strictures (quite literally in Desdemona’s case). Women in Othello are treated little better than ‘The Moor’ himself and perhaps even a little worse in some ways. They are routinely disbelieved, suspected of treachery and wantonness and called ‘strumpets’. The plot is built around Desdemona’s supposed adultery and her vibrant sexuality which Shakespeare writes about often in graphic terms, referencing her body and her lusts first for her husband and later for multiple men either accused with or coveting her. She is pitched as a betrayer from the start, deceiving her father to run off and marry Othello which causes a parting between them and after which he dispatches a warning to her new husband about her trustworthiness, a warning that hangs over her character throughout the play.

Notable too is the additional domestic violence subtext that Dyer adds to this production, making Emilia, wife of Iago and maid to Desdemona, a quiet victim of abuse. Appearing with a bandaged elbow at first but later with bruises, her deference to him becomes an important motivational device in which Emilia becomes enmeshed in Iago’s plot against Othello. But it lays the groundwork for Othello’s own acts of violence towards his wife, creating a model for male brutality against women that leaves them with no recourse to justice. Pointedly, no one believes in the virtue of either woman until it is too late.

Bianca too, though featured only briefly, endures taunts about her own chastity and decency, hauled away by soldiers before she can reveal the truth with Shakespeare equally uninterested in what happens to her. The presence of the System is then a multi-layered one that seeks only to protect its own, showing no grief or care for the fate of the people it tramples over so long as it triumphs and is sustained. These harbingers of fate separate this Othello from the National’s 2013 version, reflecting very contemporary concerns about social justice and the inbuilt biases of modern power structures that ultimately deflect and deter even the smallest incursions.

Dyer and Lamford’s vision is a gloomy one, a world of shadows in a classical meets dystopian-utility design that draws out the embedded political processes stacked against Othello and the women, dwarfing and enclosing them even when they think they are the height of their power or happiness. Lamford has created a tiered set, almost ampitheatrical that nods to Greek and Roman democratic tradition upon which the System imperiously sit, watch and guide the action like Olympian Gods observing their instrument Iago. There is something solid and unshakable about the design, a stone edifice that seems carved into the stage representing millenia of stable, unmoving and unchanging power resting with the elite, one that by default creates a pit or arena at the stage level where individuals from outside the System contend for victory and place. Yet, before the story even begins Lamford’s imposing structures shows us that they will always lose.

Michael Vale’s costumes dovetail very neatly into this concept, using military uniforms for men and women as a base but making them feel like everyday wear, a utilitarian consistency in how everyone must dress that suggests a rigid right-wing despotism of the kind that George Orwell might have written. The most obvious allusion is to fascist blackshirts which underpins the racial tension in the play and Vale exclusively uses blue and black in his colour scheme, combining 1930s tailoring with the simplicity of futuristic and orderly design to enhance Lamford, Dunn and Green’s notions of a sad timelessness in which the story of Othello plays out again and again. Vale gives the protagonist only one moment of true power in the play, when he appears after his wedding wearing a tunic that suggest his cultural heritage – also in midnight blue – matched by Desdemona as the pair are momentarily ascendant and in sync before their attempted conformation and assimilation consumes them.

Dyer controls all of this really nicely and while there is no sense of urgency in the performances – with a three hour running time – the methodical destruction of Othello by degrees unfolds with precision, giving space and clarity to all of the complex crossover plots and devices that Shakespeare uses. Iago’s plan are complicated and multi-dimensional with no pre-determined direction at the beginning of the play. Instead he tries a few things out on Othello and others to see if his venom will work and when it does amplifies his plan accordingly. This production is very good at making those moments particularly clear and marrying together the emotional manipulation and linguistic tricks that Iago employs with the trail of physical evidence he creates as the decisive handkerchief is passed between characters. Notable too is Iago’s influence on others and his ability to coerce not just his wife but Michael Cassio and Roderigo which are well presented here.

Terera’s Othello is a complex figure, a doomed tragic hero unable to account for the very different forces that assail him, not recognising the gradations of difference between his own internal jealousy, and the external influences of racism and the System willing him to fail in marriage, job and status. It makes his Othello extremely trusting, taking things at face value be it his wife’s professions of love or Iago’s words, and as a consequence he slips very easily into paranoia which soon consumes him. And Terera charts that descent confidently, creating a sense of the voices plaguing him as doubts and fears drive him to a form of insanity. That this then connects to the masculine aggression for which the Venetians use him makes sense and Terera feeds this into the production’s take on domestic violence and the effect of male rage acted upon female bodies and reputations.

Paul Hilton’s Iago is given leave to be a big, bombastic villain that seems to suit the grandiosity of Lambert’s surroundings, making his character something of the graphic novel baddie. Hilton relishes every word of Iago’s speeches, enjoying the mischief he makes and even when finally caught out, laughing dismissively and with great self-satisfaction. Hilton nonetheless makes his Iago tangibly intimidating, using every inch of his height to tower over Tanya French as the cowed Emilia and dominate any space he is in. That this Iago can choose to stand unnoticed in the shadows while equally forceful when he needs to be be makes him doubly dangerous, leaving the audience in no doubt of the physical strength that matches his vicious oration.

Among the rest of the cast, Rosy McEwen does her best with the fairly thankless role of Desdemona, a little too giggly in the first half perhaps but certainly demonstrating a fighting spirit in the second. French is suitably ambiguous as Emilia who well presents the symptoms of abuse that appear as devotion to her husband but she is ruled by fear, while Joe Bolland makes much of Roderigo as a creepy chancer chasing Desdemona and Rory Fleck Byrne makes a dignified patsy in Cassio. Together with the Ensemble who flesh out the System, the cast convincingly create a sense of society keeping Othello at bay using gesture and body language consistently to isolate and ultimately shape his destruction.

This is a production that has thought very carefully about the things it wants to say and, particularly, what Othello has meant at different points in its performance history. Dyer’s perspective, which has its Press Night this week, is not on fire just yet but it soon will be, bringing a meaningful reflection on Shakespeare’s tale to the stage while clearly distinguishing it from all of those that have come before. Othello continues to resonate not only for its jealousy themes but because now, as in 1604, while the System remains, those on the outside of it will never be safe.

Othello is playing at the National Theatre until 21 January with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Blues for an Alabama Sky – National Theatre

A lack of choice connects female stories across the ages as women find themselves hemmed in by a lack of opportunity, access to education and agency to determine their own path. Some of those structures are patriarchal, others economic and social, but all of them restrict and confine, ensuring women become something other than themselves. Looking across cultural representations of women in the past 100 years it is possible to draw connections between characters such as Hester Collier in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, Patrick Hamilton’s Jenny from Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, even up to Kyo Choi’s Kim Han-See in The Apology, all of whom are in pursuit of a fantasy life that will never be fulfilled. Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, opening at the National Theatre this week, adds another unknowingly tragic heroine to that list, singer Angel who will grasp at an opportunity to get out of Harlem in 1930.

The concept of the American Dream and the extent to which it ever applied to women is something that Cleage explores in her play as every character pursues something beyond themselves, something better that will fundamentally alter the daily grind and transform them. Written in 1995, Cleage’s play draws heavily on the intimate boarding house and lodgings worlds of Rattigan and Hamilton in which urban, financially straightened lives are stacked together in densely packed neighbourhoods. And like these earlier works, Cleage emphasises the individual humanity and consequent value of the decent, hardworking community she depicts in a progressive piece that looks to personal attributes rather than limited religious and moral codes imposed by others to shape our responses to her cast.

Cleage sets the action primarily in a single two-room apartment over several weeks which becomes the focus of interaction between neighbours, lovers and friends navigating the next stage of their lives during the Great Depression. And Cleage quickly establishes a group of forward-looking dreamers, people seen as radical in quite different ways by their own community, sometimes dangerously so and not for the reasons we might expect. The context is constrictive and mundane – economic downturn, prohibition and high unemployment (symbolised by the lead characters losing their jobs at the start of the play) – but the lives within are nonetheless vibrant, full of possibility for bettering themselves and their local area while embracing the growing devotion to popular culture that provides a two folder escape – one in their imagination and one in reality.

Angel and her best friend Guy are characters whose dream life and real life could unite, bringing them both the recognition and glamour they crave. Guy’s work as a designer for cabaret and performance artists is sustained by the dream of working for Josephine Baker in Paris to whom he has an unexplained connection. But it drives his narrative, allowing him to indulge in the fantasy of working for her, which he cannot be swayed from, while practically working towards it with a job that puts him at the centre of a creative local scene of parties, drinking and affairs which simultaneously becomes a refuge from the daily grind. Angel meanwhile takes on work as a singer to support her dream of becoming a more famous singer. Yet her dream is compromised by an innate recognition that she will never achieve it, and instead pursues a course of survival that results in more questionable behaviour. Is Angel an inescapable and inevitable product of her gendered circumstances, Cleage askes, or does she actively sabotage herself to ensure those dreams always fail?

Throughout Blues for an Alabama Sky, Angel is a character with a notable duality. There is a deep vulnerability stemming from the knowledge that her body as much as her voice has sustained her, attracting a series of ‘gangsters’ and inappropriate men who only maintain a passing interest beyond the instant gratification of being her lover. And Angel actively seems to be looking for love, each encounter beginning with the hope that, like Sally Bowles, maybe this time it will work out. All of this pain makes Angel such a powerful blues singer, leaving the audience to hope that she will make it after all.

Like Rattigan’s Hester, Hamilton’s Jenny and indeed Isherwood’s Sally, Angel is under the illusion that she has choice, that she can direct and shape the future before her. Hester believes that if Freddy could just return her feelings with the same fervor, rendering all other difference between them immaterial, everything will be fine; Jenny is looking for the next man who can give her the material comforts she deserves and Sally too is looking for something real, that the next man will see her for the first time. Angel likewise falsely clings to the notion that traditional respectability – husband, family and home – will somehow snuff out all the other things she has had to do to achieve them, that if a man can love her enough, everything else will be insignificant, even her own desires. That each of these women is trapped into dependence on a man to rescue them is entirely a product of their society and the expectations placed on women to conform even when they are already living outside those structures. The tragedy comes from the failure of men to accept them and how decidedly that destroys their hopes.

A further tragedy in Angel’s character, and perhaps the most important moral point of Cleage’s work, is that Angel has gradations of selfishness that steal her happy ending, that she is prepared to stomp over anyone to get what she thinks she wants. In contrast to the behaviour of other characters, Angel uses people, lies and even betrays herself in order to become the potential wife that beau Leland may accept. And in the process she tears down her friend Guy in order to do it. These are survival techniques of a women with only herself to rely on, but in using her body to secure a different kind of status that she hopes will bring respectability and stability – regardless of his own questionable views – her body creates a response of its own, one which Angel coldly manages when a better opportunity presents itself.

Contrast this with Cleage’s parallel creation, Delia, Guy’s neighbour, who forms a counterpoint to the central pairing and in many ways is the pure heart of Blues for an Alabama Sky. Delia is a prototype for women’s rights, recognising the distressing lives of her community and prepared to face personal approbation and resistance by opening a Family Planning clinic. Though herself a virgin, as Guy discovers early on, Delia is an advocate of choice that will give women biological and economic freedom, and the play follows her progress through religious and medical objections, creating a character who is constructively forward-thinking and virtuous in her motives.

But Delia is given complexity through her growing attraction to local doctor Sam and her uncomplicated affection and acceptance of her neighbours. Non-judgmental, inclusive and encouraging, Delia experiences difficulty throughout the play quite differently to Angel and that treatment comes from character’s essential goodness and desire to contribute something beyond herself. The outcomes of the play, though tragic for the women in various ways, reflect a moral judgement by the writer who sets quite different paths for them both – Delia afforded true and reciprocated feeling that expands her emotional experience as a woman while Angel is left almost exactly where we found her; perhaps a little harder, more jaded but about to embark on the same destructive cycle.

The male characters by contrast are notably defined by their location, Guy and Sam products of Harlem while lover Leland bringing a darker cloud emanating from his Alabama moral and deeply Christian views that cause significant disruption within the group, shaping the plays central questions about appropriate ways to live. Men too are limited by their world and while it is perhaps too easy to suggest they suffer differently to women, Cleage looks at questions of masculinity and expectation in urban environments. That Guy represents a challenge to the traditional notions of manliness which Leland symbolises is one of Cleage’s most engaging themes as the two contend for a kind of primacy that manifests in a fight for Angel’s soul.

Guy is the kinder man which is reflected in Cleage’s perspective on female agency in the play, as he supports the development of his friend while Leland actively seeks to limit her. Sam likewise plays a role in facilitating Delia’s success, a meeting of minds that takes place in an enclosed but open-minded community where a modern morality and approach to sex, work and shared living finds itself hampered by traditional regulation and attitudes. Leland is the faultline along which these two worlds meet and collide, bringing dangerous but decisive consequences for the Harlem set.

The first half of the play is, by extension, very character and scenario focused, and while it establishes the narrative and motivational drivers, Cleage spends a long time setting-up the parameters in which the more traditional drama will then play out in the final third of the action, the pace of which Director Lynette Linton manages really well. Some may find it slow and ponderous while others will be fascinated by the ways in which Cleage constructs these lives and starts to draw the audience into their story, only realising in the final scenes how the long work of Act One created investment in the happiness and success of these neighbours, and how affectingly Cleage has created their circumstances and choices.

Samira Wiley captures all the contradictions in Angel’s character, the love of the party and that underlying fear that it is almost over for her that brings out a kind of desperation. Angel is deeply cynical, almost ground down in her belief that dreams don’t come true and the actor develops her pragmatic, sometimes cruel and headstrong side as she sets her sights on a more achievable outcome, all the while Wiley’s maintains Angel’s refusal to accept this is not what she truly wants. Ronke Adekoluejo’s Delia is a complete contrast with plenty of contradictions that help to make the character more rounded. Adekoluejo makes her shy and determined, innocent but knowledgeable about the medical needs of women, radical in her vision for the community and acceptance of others but looking for a traditional loving relationship, all of which Adekoluejo makes relatable and credible.

Giles Terera has a very busy rep season ahead, rehearsing the leading role in Othello opening in November as well as playing the flamboyant Guy here. Terera’s sensitive performance is very smart, taking a character who lives a bigger life than the others, filled with showbusiness parties and aspirations but still making him vulnerable, grounded and loyal to the people he cares about. There are some great scenes with Osy Ikhile’s Leland as the two men prowl around one another, subtly glaring as their very different outlooks clash, while Sule Rimi places Sam somewhere between the two, rational about the everyday needs of his patients but equally drawn to the possibility of finally meeting someone to share with it.

Staged on Frankie Bradshaw’s superb rotating house set, which echoes Tom Scutt’s excellent semi-translucent design for the 2016 production of The Deep Blue Sea, it creates a sense of lives packed in and overlapping. Blues for an Alabama Sky has much to say about the price of giving up on a dream and why it is often a woman who has to compromise. All of Angel’s choices are ultimately taken from her and while others may find a different future at the end of the play, like Hester, Jenny and Sally, Angel can never be anything else.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is at the National Theatre until 5 November with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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


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