Tag Archives: National Theatre

Hansard – National Theatre

Hansard - National Theatre

Writing a play about the political experience of the last three years may seem an impossible task, not because the events don’t naturally lend themselves to drama but because if you saw it on the stage you would think it all so ludicrously unlikely, every twist and turn so perplexingly farcical that audiences just wouldn’t believe it. But we are living proof that truth is stranger than fiction, and while that may give comfort to future historians unpicking every aspect of our socio-political activities 30 years from now, how do contemporary playwrights begin to anatomize and reflect on one the of the biggest constitutional issues of our lifetime when the story is far from over – the answer is to look to the past.

Like James Graham before him, who used the 1970s setting of This House to draw parallels with the coalition government of 2010-2015, Simon Woods’s smart and affecting new play Hansard returns to 1988, to the height of the Thatcher government as an active member of the Government and his  Labour-supporting wife tear each other to pieces on a Friday morning in the sanctity of their Cotswold’s home. It’s a play about many things, about the fundamental theoretical difference between the approaches to citizenship and care in the two major parties, about the nature of political and personal legacy, about the traps and sore spots created by decades of marriage, and about the fundamental failure of Robin and Diana Hesketh (becoming ciphers for their own parties) to truly act for the causes they so passionately espouse. Woods’s brilliant 90-minute play is a searing assessment of our national dilemma and of who we have become.

But first, as with all two-handers, you will notice how smartly Woods has constructed his play to create waves of activity that manage the changing levels of intensity and tension between the characters, while cumulatively taking the audience deeper into their marriage. Woods writes with a real understanding of genuine conversation, with its loops of meaning and circular arguments. It is crucial to the overall effect of Hansard that at no time do Robin and Diana ever say anything unnatural that make the play feel theatrical or false in its presentation of a particular moment in this relationship. Woods makes you feel like an interloper, listening with a glass to the wall in this private presentation of real pain and there is not a single clunky moment as the conversation turns corners or changes direction.

Instead, Woods rather masterfully controls the simultaneous unfolding of the Hesketh relationship and their life together as well as using their experience to reach the viewer, engrossing us in their Friday morning in order to see ourselves a little better in their reflection. And while Hansard is a deeply political play, its most striking reference is to Edward Albee’s campus drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Imagine George and Martha on a quiet night in  when there are no guests to play to, Robin and Diana are somewhere here. Woods has the same ability to write dialogue that runs through a number of topics, introducing new strands as needed to revolve the action, but like Albee, he is able to loop the entire discussion back to the one or two fundamental issues, recurring motifs that anchor the play. And it is the eventual unveiling of this central secret, the true reason for the bitterness in this very broken marriage that hooks you in.

Hansard is often very funny and you will cry with laughter at the brilliant jabs that Woods lands on old-Etonian Ministers and their perspective on the world, shaking your head in amused recognition at how expertly he skewers the ruling classes on both sides of the House. Yet, what really emerges from Woods’s writing is a compassionate comprehension of the many forms of suffering that two people with such knowledge of one another can casually inflict. Like George and Martha, this is situated in the complex interior life of his characters and the clarity with which he sees them both so, however much you resist, their actions become comprehensible even if they are never exactly likeable.

It begins with a fairly clear distinction between the Left and Right positions on the purpose of government – is it to provide a maternal protection by shielding citizens from difficulties or should it be a paternal facilitation that allows each member of society to face and manage hardship without recourse to outside assistance. Woods uses his characters, initially, as physical forms of this debate, Robin the typical Conservative politician whose patrician principles extend beyond the legislation he helps to enact – in this case Clause 28, voting to prevent homosexuality from being discussed in schools – to his behaviour at home, as well as his entire outlook on life. Woods uses Robin to demonstrate the Thatcherite concept of meritocracy, of learning to stand on your own two feet and grasp opportunities for yourself, that natural talent, hard work and ambition will be justly rewarded.

It is an opinion that for much of the play will provoke your anger, and we learn to dislike the smug Robin for all his self-deprecating wit, and through the well-directed scorn of his wife, we come to understand that this view of the world is one born from privilege, of entitlement bred into him at public school and because no barriers have been placed in Robin’s path to power. It’s not hard to align this impression of Robin as pertaining to the lack of compassion we see in our modern governments. But the story Woods is telling is far more complicated than that, and over the course of the play, told in real time, our perspective on Robin shifts as Diana’s own failings come into focus.

Most of the time, the audience will applaud her, the years of bile erupting into a series of beautifully and heroically delivered snipes that champion the vulnerable and dismiss the overgrown schoolboys she believes work with her husband. But Diana’s own position becomes equally untenable in Woods’s narrative, a suggestion that personal weakness undermines her political passion leading to a crucial discovery that affects her role in the play. Through Diana, we see how the high-minded ideals of the Left and her demand for kindness as a starting point for all policy becomes as naive a strategy for government as Robin’s dismissive approach seems cruel, and while Woods clearly has no time for the glut of self-serving Right-leaning politicians, neither does the play suggest, has the woolly liberalism of the arts and the series of “geography teachers” who headed the Labour Party until 1988, served the nation any better. Here we are then as an audience caught between Diana and Robin, but also as a society of citizens trapped between Left and Right, facing the failure of both doctrines to create the levels of social support needed. This is very smart writing.

Yet, it is also very emotional writing and Woods never lets this political conundrum diffuse the reality of the people he is creating, and through this marriage we are asked to also consider the individual’s deep yearning for legacy. Robin is overly preoccupied, as many modern leaders have seemed to be, with manufacturing his place in history, in ensuring his work, his presence and what little influence he has amassed is remembered. He is comforted by the existence of Hansard – the political diary that records every moment of the House of Commons – which will mark his contribution. But Robin’s legacy, like his marriage and house is rotten. Looks around the edges of Hildegard Bechtler’s excellent set, the ceiling is lightly dusted with mold, the skirtings and corners are decayed with age and there is a hint of damp beneath the beautiful middle-class facade with its extensive garden and fitted AGA. Even the walls are bare of pictures, of anything that denotes that real lives are lived in this house, physically and metaphorically there is nothing inside.

Instead of creating history, Diana and Robin are haunted by it and they have become frozen in this cycle of reproach and recrimination. She uses the origins of their relationship in an affair as evidence that his now cheating again, the fact of his mysterious Wednesdays something he never confirms or denies however often she needles him, while he resents her blatant alcoholism and refusal to behave appropriately on public occasions. For the Heskeths the past is weaponised, their lives like Hansard an exact diary of former hurts and humiliations, their legacy full of destroyed electoral promises played out across damaged personal loyalties and conspicuous clashes. The child they barely mention sits between them which, like George and Martha, takes the game to a level beyond which either wants to play. By the play’s conclusion the Heskeths (and we) are clear on how we all got where we are, even if we have no way to fix it.

Director Simon Godwin knows well how to control the rise and fall within these relationships and his recent Antony and Cleopatra on the Olivier stage was superbly managed. Diana and Robin are similarly matched and played with relish by theatre titans Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings. Godwin fills the long Lyttleton stage with their trauma, positioning his characters as far apart as possible without ever losing the captivating intimacy of their relationship. One moves towards the other, so Godwin has the other depart instantly for the opposite side of the stage, it becomes a routine so embedded in the rhythm of their life together they are barely aware it is happening, and even at the conclusion where all the battles have been played out, they find no physical intimacy in the more hopeful aftermath.

Alex Jennings is superb as the beleaguered Robin, devoted to his Prime Minister and more than willing to vote as instructed if it will further his own career. Robin truly believes the views he espouses, with no hint of self-awareness about how his comfortable life has been created through the inequalities he sustains by his actions. Yet, Jennings very slowly introduces Robin’s humanity and while as a character he claims to have no time for Freud or for the need to bewail his lot, there is an active psychological direction in Jennings’s performance that ultimately leads to a sensitivity that is quite moving in the play’s final moments.

Lindsay Duncan is equally magnificent as Diana, a trickier prospect in some ways, shut off at home and restricted by the opportunities for late middle-aged women in 1988 unable to effect the kind of change she needs for herself and the nation. There is so much to enjoy in Duncan’s delivery of every put-down and jibe, but, like Robin, it becomes clear that Diana is hiding a frailty that Duncan draws out as the morning draws-on, a need to purge her life of the poison that has effected their marriage, one which gives Diana strength as well as fear. Unlike her husband, Diana is filled with a need to expurgate the past, to release the demons that hold them back which drives the drama as the chemistry between Duncan and Jennings ignites.

Woods has written a scintillating new play where the dialogue never stops, there are no moments of silence to pause or reflect, and even when characters momentarily leave the room the other continues to address them. In just 90-minutes this creates a continual flow that is both fascinating and enthralling. Hansard is a great political play, one that tells us everything about the society we have become and why the impasse of the last three years cannot be easily broken. But Woods has also achieved the one thing that seems to elude our polarised nation, in the creation of Diana and Robin and using their fractured marriage as a metaphor for our ailing democratic system he shows us the humanity of both sides, that the possibility of finding common ground may not be as remote as we fear. With incendiary months ahead at Westminster, let’s hope he’s right.

Hansard is at the National Theatre until 25 November with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

Advertisements

Downstate – National Theatre

Downstate - National Theatre

The complexities of the justice system in the UK and America have been a keen focus for playwrights in recent times, and while in theory the trial-sentence-release process ensures that perpetrators are punished for the requisite time depending on their crime, in practice it can be a far more emotive experience. While the Young Vic’s high-quality dramas Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and The Jumper Factory have give us an insight into the different pressures of prison life, what happens next can be even more difficult when an offender is released back into the community. James Graham showed us in Quiz that Charles Ingram’s family suffered continual abuse and even attacks on their pets just for allegedly cheating on a game show, but if your crime is far more serious that, is justice ever really served?

Co-produced by the National Theatre, Bruce Norris’s Downstate premiered in the US last autumn and now makes its UK debut in the Dorfman. What looks like a normal suburban house is the transitional location for a group of sex offenders who have served their sentences and are now part of a phased release programme. All four of them have convictions for paedophilic activity, the nuances of which, during the course of this 2.5-hour show, the audience learns more about, while understanding the effect this has had on their lives. Catalysed by a confrontation with one of their (now adult) victims, Downstate consistently shifts our sympathies, asking difficult questions about the appropriateness of penalties meted out by the legal system, if there really is a sliding-scale of heinous acts and whether we should try to see the humanity within those who commit them.

At the heart of this play is a concern that no punishment will ever be enough, that whatever the crime – but especially with the serious offences under discussion here – the effect on the victim is far greater than any legal redress, a question playwrights have grappled with for a long time. Shakespeare essentially wrote about this 400 years ago when his Merchant of Venice anti-hero demanded a “pound of flesh”, a revenge theme that has resonated through subsequent crime dramas down the centuries. In Downstate, this manifests in two ways, first in the seemingly cosy existence of the four men in a nice house that in relation to their crimes initially causes the audience to recoil, and second through the character of Andy, a “survivor” whose life has been enduringly affected, who demands to be heard when his abuser is unexpectedly released into this environment.

Norris has chosen the quite traditional domestic setting and structure that is so prevalent in American drama, steering away from the David Mamet-like spare prose and focus on masculinity, that owes much to the hard-boiled simplicity of film noir dialogue, which is a more usual frame for male-centric plays. Downstate instead offers a discursive drama about a dysfunctional homestead, with a feeling of Tracy Letts in the creation of a pseudo-family battling external intrusions. Its fascinating subject-matter makes for several compelling duologues as characters spar with each other and reality, asking the audience to consider whether some crimes are absolute or if there are gradations of guilt and repentance that should offer the chance of rehabilitation. But Norris’s dramatic structure yields few surprises, and is, arguably, rather formulaic – although in performance this is less of a negative that it sounds.

While a major revelation at the end of part two is pretty easy to guess, signalled as it is rather too obviously at the start of the Act, each ex-offender, as you might expect, is given the opportunity to tell and occasionally justify his story. While The Jumper Factory purposefully withheld the nature of the protagonist crime, and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train retained some ambiguity about the guilt of its lead character, there is still much to take from Norris’s concept, particularly the apparent remorselessness of the men in the house, or at least the feeling that they have made peace with their past, served their sentence and moved on.

To explore this idea we are given two particularly compelling character-driven discussions that dominate each Act to dig deep into the thought processes and behaviour of the men in the house. Our sympathies and allegiances are intriguingly tested as Parole Officer Ivy (a superb and chilling Cecilia Noble fresh from her scene-stealing performance in Nine Night) confronts silent housemate Felix (Eddie Torres) who, thus far, has kept himself to himself, quietly eating cereal in his room and trying to stay out of sight. It’s a revelatory conversation that twists and turns brilliantly as Ivy questions Felix on his GPS tracking data that proves he had transgressed the boundaries of his freedom.

As the evidence is presented coldly to Felix, initially you feel for him a small struggle for a moment of liberation and desire to be close to his family that becomes quite affecting. What happens in the next 10-minutes is remarkable drama as Noble’s Ivy plays ace after ace shifting our perspective on the truth and eventually the shocking nature of Felix’s original crime. Torres is excellent in his big moment, suggesting a conviction in the early moments of this discussion that starts to win you round, while delivering some well-timed emotional reactions that reveal his desperate fear and underlying failure to recognise and control his own responses.

In Act Two, this is mirrored in a confrontation between Andy, Fred and Dee which is equally dramatic, a stew of conflicting information and interactions that pushes the audience to see things from every side. The erupting rage of Tim Hopper’s Andy as he is compelled to confront Fred is balanced by the ordinary domesticity of their lodgings and the calm, easy interactions between the housemates. There is a brief period of reminiscence between abuser and victim as they talk fondly of Fred’s piano lessons, a golden age before the predatory teacher made his move. Norris hints that Andy had his own problematic family from which Fred became a welcome respite but also implies an unsevered connection between the men, that Hopper uses in his performance to show the hold of Fred’s charisma despite himself.

As the discussion loops around and Andy pushes to regain his ground, his encounter with Dee is designed to bruise and confound. And seen from a purely theatrical perspective Norris builds the drama well to reveal a level of delusion that affects them all, both men convinced that his perspective is the truth. K Todd Freeman’s Dee, a former theatre Dance Captain with a devotion to Diane Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, is perhaps Downstate’s most unknowingly tragic creation, grown caustic and cynical by time but with a softer heart beneath. He manages the household while caring for the wheelchair-bound Fred yet refuses to believe his own crime is akin to those around him, Nor does he accept that Andy’s desire for purification as anything less than indulgent weakness. The discussion is compellingly written and performed even if Norris’s approach to playing one truth against the other, and Andy’s exposure feel uncomfortable.

The latter is one of the most challenging aspects of Norris’s play, not so much for the content (although there is graphic anatomical description in the second half as part of a legal document) but for the way in which the writer challenges our perspective on “victimhood”, forcing us to  wonder, uncomfortably, who is behaving reasonably in this context. The way in which Andy’s testimony is presented is almost clinical as he tries to read a prepared statement to former piano teacher Fred at the start of the play. It is a recitation of facts delivered with subdued emotion, an outline of events and their consequences presented, at this stage, as a formality that masks Andy’s deeper pain.

It is only later, when Andy fails to feel the catharsis he craves, that he returns in Act Two for a second, more explosive, confrontation that draws the home’s “matriarch” Dee into the conversation. And it is here where Norris’s approach becomes much harder to reconcile as Andy angrily demands Fred takes ownership of the hurt that he feels and the broken consequences of his life by signing a legal confession of culpability that outlines the specific acts committed. Yet, Norris has spent the intervening hour opening out the lifestyle and personalities of the household to us, showing them as a group of now quite vulnerable men trying to survive within ever chastening boundaries that casts Andy’s outburst in a slightly different light, making it seem hysterical and perhaps even, inappropriate.

As the tension rises in what is an increasingly fraught interchange between the three men, Dee accuses Andy of being obsessed, of refusing to move on from something that happened more than 30-years before and drawing on his own childhood trauma to suggest Andy’s essential weakness. It is a tough conversation to stomach with Norris’s point being that cause and effect is never as straightforward as it looks and behaviour patterns have many origins, yet the facts of Andy’s abuse are never in question so this unpicking of an undisputed victim’s story feels particularly problematic and even unnecessarily cruel. While Dee’s own viewpoint is shown to be potentially delusional at other points in the play, this inability to build-up the humanity of the perpetrators without tearing down their victims is something Downstate never satisfactorily resolves, and it leaves a bitter after taste.

This is reinforced by the play’s final character, Gio (Glenn Davis),  the youngest of the group, on a 15-month transition for the statutory rape of a girl he thought was 17. Davis’s performance continually distances Gio from the other inhabitants, his arrogance causing spikey clashes with Dee as the men wrangle over the seriousness of their offences. While you might admire the character’s determination that one mistake won’t prevent him from building a future as a business owner, he too is unrepentant, claiming himself the victim of unfortunate circumstances ensnared by a woman he suggests has gone on to teenage pregnancy and notoriety, which, like Andy, turns the tables on the victim with a purpose that never feels entirely clear.

Whether the crimes of these men are absolutely the same or relative is an impossible question, you see their humanity in Norris’s writing and while in theory they have served their time, even in this theatrical hypothetical scenario the group’s lack of remorse muddies the waters considerably. With excellent performances there are some really engrossing moments that tackle difficult questions about justice head-on, yet, the undermining of victim statements and personalities, however delusional the perpetrator, is never properly justified by Downstate’s discursive approach. Whether rehabilitation is truly possible for such serious crimes,Norris never really decides, leaving only a dramatically engaging but morally troubling outcome.

Downstate is at the National Theatre until 27 April with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Hadestown – National Theatre

Hadestown - National Theatre

The UK and America have a fairly health theatre exchange programme which every year allows audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to enjoy the very best shows that each has to offer, as well as facilitating the transfer of creative talent. From next Spring, our American cousins can look forward to transfer productions of Ink, Network and The Lehman Trilogy (itself an Italian import) all of which should be unmissable, having already savoured Angels in America, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Travesties in 2018. In the opposite direction, London has snapped-up Annie Baker’s John and two-part sensation The Inheritance currently enjoying an extended West End run after its UK premiere at the Young Vic. Now the National Theatre has a vibrant production of the musical Hadestown which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016.

A little over a year ago it was a musical that rescued the Olivier Theatre from a difficult run of substandard new plays. Common and Salome had reviewed poorly, the much-debated tricky staging proving an insurmountable challenge to these productions. And then Dominic Cooke came in with Follies and made it look so easy, a glorious piece of work that is rightly returning for an additional run in February. Suddenly the Olivier was alive again and whether sat in front row of the stalls or the back of the circle, every heart-aching moment filled this enormous room. Success breeds success and 2018 has subsequently seen the Olivier host a wonderful version of Translations, an engaging discussion of death in Exit the King and a stylishly impressive Antony and Cleopatra which will play in repertory with latest arrival Hadestown.

A much anticipated production that earned rave reviews in New York, Hadestown is a concept album turned stage musical by Anais Mitchell about the Orpheus and Eurydice’s legend that comes to the National prior to a Broadway run. The story unites the travelling Eurydice, brought by the Fates to a particular bar on the day that the Goddess Persephone returns to the world bringing Spring and Summer in her wake. Eurydice, a realist who sees things as they really are, is charmed by the song of Orpheus, a young musician who dreams of better worlds. As their love deepens, Persephone must return to an unhappy marriage with husband Hades in the Underworld, a God of ominous power. With Orpheus distracted by his music, Eurydice is alone and hungry with nothing to sell but her soul.

Hadestown smartly relocates this Greek myth to a pseudo 1920s / modern day New Orleans-like bar, which offers plenty of visual and musical influences that make this such an intriguing and unusual experience. Structurally, the show is narrated by the rather kindly but portentous Hermes (an excellent Andre De Shields), the messenger of the Gods, who becomes the master of ceremonies and wry observer, ushering-in as well as commenting on unfolding events. Along with the three Fates who stalk the action – musically a 1960s-esque girl-group (Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri) – Hermes is a reminder to the other characters that their own agency is limited by a bigger plan for them all, which creates a driving sense of inevitability that forces the show to its conclusion.

Along with the inescapability of fate, Hermes also represents our desire to see a different outcome from the same set of circumstances. There is a strong idea of the cyclical nature of the world in various guises, so in one respect we constantly revisit and retell stories like the Orpheus and Eurydice legend applying their meaning to our own times, but there is also a meta-reference in Hadestown to the show itself playing its story again and again every night, as one version ends, another is soon to begin. All of this contributes to a restrictive containment from which the characters can never break free.

These cycles also appear in other areas of the show. Rachel Chavkin’s production is notably about the effect of the seasons, predominantly the recurrent climatic change that eternally rotates fecundity and bloom with deciduousness and decay. The characters come to life with Persephone’s arrival freed from an extended winter that references turbulent storms and prolonged cold, reflecting her own troubled relationship with Hades. Her presence in the world brings warm light in Bradley Kings design, a sense of freedom and happiness that they forget is time-limited, ever hopeful that the cost will be deferred, but Persephone must always leave, even against her own inclination.

The seasonal theme is also used as a metaphor for human ageing and attraction, as the bloom of womanhood in particular fades to be replaced by the lure of a younger option. The is one of Hadestown’s most interesting themes as the God of the Underworld puts strain on his rotten marriage by pursuing the innocent and troubled Eurydice. Persephone’s former glory, the previous allure with which she entranced Hades in a garden is repeatedly referenced, asking questions about the expectations placed on women’s physical appearance, about the unreasonable power of memory and the value of maturity. There is clear resonance with the #MeToo experience as well, particularly in the ways in which powerful men casually coerce and corrupt impressionable women.

The action takes place in two overlapping locations, a bar in America and a foundry in hell for which Rachel Hauck has designed one multipurpose and characterful set that easily travels between the real and devilish worlds with a change of lighting and some ingenious use of the Olivier revolve. Multiple locations are often created across separate sets, turning the full stage to each them, but designers and directors are becoming increasingly creative in the way they envisage its use, most recently with an entire ship’s hull swinging into view in Antony and Cleopatra like a giant shark fin. Pleasingly, Hauck has conjured something entirely different for Hadestown, keeping the main stage entirely stationary while two smaller middle circles rotate at differing speeds in opposing directions.

Here, Chavkin places the ensemble as workman on the outer revolve to show the ongoing and repetitive nature of their daily grind with choreographed segments in Hades’s foundry. Then, in selective bigger moments, a smaller section of the drum rises up to create a platform which has a rock concert glamour that varies the height and tone of the performance, drawing attention to particular songs or moments that require some added visual spectacle.

The music for these ensemble numbers is high energy country and blues with hints of calypso and echoes of Cuban Salsa that make the full cast numbers impactful with strong, memorable songs. This includes the excellent title number Way Down Hadestown, a growly piece that has a down and dirty feel, while the impressive When the Chips are Down reveals the enduring slog of the ironworks and the hopelessness of existence for anyone who sold their soul. Equally enjoyable are the songs specifically for Hades, a Johnny Cash-like country king with an astonishing bass and domineering character that is reflected in the slow, almost spoken rhythm of his numbers.

If Hadestown has a fault, it is the weakness of the lead character and the generic boy-band pop he has been given to sing. Reeve Carney’s Orpheus is a rather lacklustre hero aimed at teenage girls raised on One Direction, but far from the manly hero needed to stand up to the God of the Underworld. There is a David versus Goliath element, but it is impossible to believe that this Orpheus was tough enough to travel from the surface, through the dark and dangerous routes to hell entirely unscathed, while his cool songwriter vibe seems mostly affected.

Likewise, his song is supposed to charm the entire world, and while part of the plot focuses on his development of the music – which he finishes just in time to take on Hades – when he finally comes to sing it in full, your first reaction is likely to be ‘is that it’. Epic II is an underwhelming tune that isn’t even the best song in the show never mind the most important track of all time, one that brings about peace, love and happiness, stopping a terrible monster in his tracks.

Eva Noblezada fares a little better as Eurydice, a much stronger sense of her own independence and a self-sufficiency that gives the character depth. More than a damsel in distress, Noblezada shows us a woman driven to an impossible deal by hunger and poverty, but not quite savvy enough to realise the consequences in that moment, but admittedly there is little chemistry with Carney’s Orpheus, giving their relationship a naivety that makes it hard to root for them as a couple.

The real interest is in the surrounding characters, particularly Amber Gray’s multi-layered Persephone and Patrick Page’s show-stealing Hades. Persephone becomes a highly sympathetic character, and Gray encourages us to appreciate her vibrancy, vivacity and mature reflection, a celebration of the autumn years of the woman who brings Summer with her. She is also a conduit for a comment on climate change, attributed here to her absence from the earth, while Gray uses her proximity to Hades and the breakdown of their marriage to bring a bitterness to their scenes, especially when his eye wanders to the younger Eurydice.

Page is a superb God of the Underworld who uses his strong and easy stage presence to emphasise the commanding and unforgiving nature of his character. With his pale snakeskin boots, there is something coldly reptilian about Hades as he stalks the stage demanding deference from anyone in his path, but Page retains a shred of humanity that makes his attachment to Persephone credible and allows the audience to think he could be reasoned with.

Hadestown is an overall for success for the National that uses the tricks of the Olivier’s stage to great effect and creating the right balance of spectacle and story to sustain its 2.5 hour run time. Its visual and musical innovation makes up for an underwhelming central character, which after a slow start brings the show to life and demonstrates what a great space this theatre can be with the right approach. With productions of this quality coming from America, our theatre exchange programme is looking pretty healthy, and with stars like Sally Field and Bill Pullman heading our way in 2019, there is plenty more to come.

Hadestown is at the National Theatre until 26 January and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Antony and Cleopatra – National Theatre

Anthony and Cleopatra - National Theatre

After a genuinely exhilarating Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre a few months ago, Shakespeare’s subsequent tale Antony and Cleopatra has arrived at the National starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo, continuing the story of the Roman Empire as the Triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavius and Lepidus descends into consolidated governance under one Emperor. It’s been a big year for this particular period of ancient history, along with the West End transfer of the RSC’s two-part Robert Harris adaptation Imperium which focused on the life of Cicero, we have seen three completed separate perspectives on the same set of characters.

It has been more than two years since this production was originally announced, with Fiennes’s name already attached, and after a disastrous Macbeth in the Olivier earlier this year, the National will be keen to demonstrate that its command of Shakespearean tragedy in the most exposing of theatre spaces is untrammelled. With press night a couple of performances away, and a couple of caveats, this is already shaping up to be a very respectable and possibly even powerful staging of Shakespeare’s tragic romance.

One of the key questions Simon Godwin’s production asks is whether this was really a great love story at all. Shakespeare often leaves plenty of room for interpretation and his greatest works give the actor plenty of scope to play the role in a variety of ways. Antony and Cleopatra is particularly ambiguous, never solely categorising itself as a grand tragedy or a shrewd political piece in which two of the world’s greatest politicians create the image of love to protect their status. The very openness of the play is one of its biggest assets allowing each new interpretation to decide whether their love is real, equal and unyielding or calculatedly one-sided, cynical and desperate.

One of this production’s most notable features is just what a stylish and luxurious world set designer Hildegard Bechtler has created, superbly supported by Evie Gurney’s costumes who notably counts Ralph Lauren and Alexander McQueen among her former employers. The emphasis in Alexandria is on relaxed wealth, loose expensive fabrics with a subtle bohemian flavour, particularly in Cleopatra’s beautiful array of dresses comprising floaty cloaks, gauzy materials and plenty of gypsy skirting. Tonally, the colours of the Egyptian court are earthy, warm and life-enhancing, bright whites, warm oranges and terracotta, all bathed in soft yellow light.

Bechtler has created a relatively simple palace set drawing on North African architecture to create what seems like an upmarket spa complete with shallow, maze-like pool that will give someone an inevitable dunking. The whole effect reflects the allure of Cleopatra herself, of an eternal summer filled with every kind of easy joy as well stocked bars sit beside sun loungers and comfortable chairs all wrapped in a hint of exclusivity.

By contrast, the Italy led by Octavius Caesar is more formally well-appointed – tasteful, minimal and subtle but austere and almost joyless. Courtiers wear distinctly Mediterranean tailoring, styled with turtle necks, paisley silk scarves and shiny slip-on loafers. It reeks of recognisable Italian design in colder hues of navy blue, grey and, later, military khaki, while Bechtler’s set here draws on the simple marble flooring of expensive hotels. It’s sparsely decorated with odd sculptures that suggest Rome’s international reach, a collection of purloined goods from the places it has conquered. Like Cleopatra’s palace, it reflects Caesar’s own personality, slick, emotionless and ordered, the military hierarchy never far from the unforgiving surface.

Godwin’s approach is visually detailed and impressive, using all of the tricks and techniques the Olivier space has to offer. Much of the earlier part of the play uses the standard revolve to cut between Alexandria and Rome, occasionally using the foremost part of the stage to connect the action as the various sets turn into view. But as the show unfolds, Godwin becomes increasingly inventive with bolder approaches to scene setting that create some impressive spectacles and help to build an escalating tension as the story unfolds.

As submarine hatches open from the stage floor the Pompey subplot emerges, soon to be followed by the fin-like growth of a whole submarine wall curving into view, utilising the variety of the Olivier drum to striking effect. While a dividing wall reduces the stage space in almost every production these days, Godwin takes a more varied approach to the second half, and as events hasten, the shifting location becomes much more fluid, notably using the disintegrating set to mark the decline of Antony and Cleopatra’s fortunes.

Godwin reimagines the land battle between Antony and Caesar’s troops as a particularly brutal skirmish around the doorways and enclosed spaces of Actium, drawing on more fractured modern experiences of warfare in Afghanistan and Syria in a carefully coordinated sequence that takes Shakespeare’s fairly remote discussion of armies clashing out of view and giving it more tangibility. Depending on where you sit, blocks of set are occasionally obstructive which is a particular problem in one of the play’s most emotional moments, and only once is the stage completely divested of all clutter, but more on that later.

It is clear how much thought and research has gone into each scene, cleverly showcasing the detailed work behind the scenes. And while this may sound like a lot of style over substance, it’s never at the expense of the core emotional drama. Instead, every decision underlines a core plot point or personality trait that feels consistent, creating a growing anticipation across the show. Sadly, the two most important moments are so mishandled that the meticulous care taken in the rest of the production undermine what should be a shattering conclusion.

The respective deaths of Antony and Cleopatra are the climax of story which could have turned out very differently. Outmanoeuvred and outwitted the lovers are left with nowhere to run, lost to each other with their political lives destroyed, their suicides should be the most impactful moment. These take place on a poorly constructed wall and staircase that acts as proxy for Cleopatra’s monument, but in the Olivier amphitheatre where there are supposed to be no bad seats, core moments of action are completely invisible to some of the audience, taking away from the power of this double death ending that set the Roman Empire on an entirely new course.

When Antony’s bleeding body is delivered to his love it has to be awkwardly winched up to the plateau at the top of the block, requiring Fiennes to mostly heave himself up while the supporting cast shove him from underneath – most undignified. It’s horribly clunky and should be impossible for a man so close to death. Exhausted from the effort his final breath is completely obscured by the set. Likewise, the tantalising and terrifying prospect of a fairly large real snake elicits an unfortunate round of sniggers as Cleopatra’s maid struggles to return it to its receptacle.* Godwin’s approach is simpler but the lack of pomp in the Egyptian Queen’s final moments is surprisingly disappointing, splayed on the floor in a plain gown in a supposedly magnificent monument that is nothing more than a set of stairs – a shame.

As the central couple, Fiennes and Okonedo are an intriguing pairing, keeping the audience guessing on the real nature of their relationship all the way through. It certainly feels more like a cynical alignment of status and political weight, driven by exotic lust, than a pure but doomed romantic love. This ambiguity adds a fascinating power between them that drives the plot as they pursue their own agendas. There may be an implied mutual desire that sits on the surface, a need to have the other want them, but they never let their relationship prevent them from enhancing their own individual status or protecting their own skin when it suits them.

Okonedo easily has the best of it in the early scenes with a wonderfully mercurial and petulant performance, a monarch who demands the devotion of all around her. Seemingly unwilling to do anything for herself, her servants run around after her, locating Antony and awaiting the frequent calls for “Charmian.” Whether or not Shakespeare had this in mind, there is something of Elizabeth I about Okonedo’s approach, demanding romantic attentions from the men around her and enjoying the game of courtly love without necessarily any of the commitment.

When Antony leaves for Rome, this Cleopatra’s concerns seem less about being parted from the man she desires than fear of losing her protected status. Her manipulation of Antony throughout seems shrewdly calculated, wearing an air of girlish jealousy for effect while happy to abandon him when fortunes turn against them in battle. Arguably Okonedo isn’t quite adding enough variation across the production, and while it is an enjoyable performance, there is no clear insight into her motivation. Ambiguity is fine for most of the show, but for her suicide to make sense the audience needs to understand where it originates, is it the realisation that her abiding love for Antony was real after all and she cannot face a world without him or does the failure to charm Octavius, and take a third Roman ruler to her bed, signal the end of the road?

Having played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar at the Barbican back in 2005 and decided to resume the mantel more than two years ago, Fiennes portrayal of a man lost in illusions of youth and driving himself to destruction is considerably assured, and at times deeply moving. When we first meet Antony, he is ensconced in a breezy hedonistic lifestyle and dressed for a pool party in wide legged trousers and open tropical shirt. Rarely without a drink in hand, even when he first returns to Rome, Fiennes portrays a man grown mentally and physically soft, still a masculine leader, but a shadow of the great military commander he once was.

Drawn back into securing the military surety of Rome, and in league with fellow Triumvirs Lepidus and Octavius, a part of Mark Antony is awoken demonstrated by Fiennes in the boisterous party scene following peace with Pompey Junior and in the occasional display of high spirits that always separated him from the seriousness of Italy. What follows is a superb depiction of self-delusion and hopeless decline as Antony’s confidence is rocked by losses and betrayals. With diminishing options, he grows to recognise his dependence on Cleopatra – which feels more like a sexual hold than anything else – but it never stops him from pursuing the course he thinks best for Rome. Before the strangely managed end, the entire set clears from the stage and Fiennes alone holds the Olivier in his hand as Antony movingly wrestles with death. For all its reported difficulties, it’s nice to see that this room can be kept entirely in thrall by as little as a great writer and a single actor at the top of his game.

The sparsity of genuine emotion between the lovers allows Tim McMullan’s noble Enobarbus to bring real feeling and conflict to his scenes as Antony’s troubled friend – a rarity in Shakespeare to have a secondary character address the audience with small soliloquies – while good support comes from Nicholas Le Prevost’s Lepidus, Sargon Yelda’s Pompey, Fisayo Akinade’s Eros and Cleopatra’s maids Charmian (Gloria Obianyo) and Iras (Georgia Landers). Tunji Kasim’s Octavius Caesar is shaping up nicely but a touch more coldness would enhance the performance, while some thinly-veiled threat would add to the drama of his final confrontation with Cleopatra.

A long time in the making, the National Theatre’s Antony and Cleopatra thoughtfully uses design and performance to build the story, heightening the tension ready for a climactic finale which in its present form doesn’t quite pay off. With two performances before press night there may not be time for remedy but that shouldn’t take away from a production that delivers on so much of its promise. After some disappointing tragedies this year (Othello and Macbeth in particular), the National can rest assured that this one was mostly worth the wait.

Antony and Cleopatra is at the National Theatre until 19 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

*Post-Show Note – this scene has now been altered.


The Lehman Trilogy – National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy - National Theatre

10 years on from the financial crisis and its effects are still with us; continued austerity, political instability around the world and a hankering for the mythological peace of a past that never was. Many reports, books and films have been made to try to explain what happened in September 2008 as banks toppled and governments took strategic decisions on whether to rescue major institutions from bankruptcy. Years of accumulated debt, resold and repackaged, complex and unstable finally brought the house down, and the first to fall was Lehman Brothers, a firm built by three brothers who moved from 1840s Germany to Alabama to sell suits and fabrics, who became the architects of a new mode of business, they were “the middle men”.

A success across Europe since its premiere in Italy in 2015, Stefano Massini’s epic and much anticipated three-hour story of those brothers, their sons and grandsons finally arrives at the National Theatre, adapted by Ben Power and directed by Sam Mendes. Already close to selling-out, anyone with a ticket should congratulate themselves while everyone else should queue for day seats, try Friday Rush or beg for returns because The Lehman Trilogy is utterly spectacular, a rare and beautifully-made theatrical triumph that deserves all the plaudits that will come raining down at this week’s press night.

In 1844, Henry Lehman, known as “the Head”, arrives in America to establish a modest but buoyant clothing store in a small Alabama town. Soon joined by brothers Emanuel (“The Arm”) and Mayer (“Spud”) the business expands, acting as the go-between for the plantation and cotton mill owners while amassing a sizeable fortune. After Henry’s death, Emanuel moves to New York to trade coffee, soon ordering his remaining brother to join him, where they expand their financial interests and their line. Outstripped by the next generation, Emanuel’s son Philip takes the firm in a new direction, but in the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, Emanuel’s grandson Bobby inherits the firm and 160 years of trading decisions suddenly come back to haunt them.

Massini’s approach is remarkably theatrical, using a spoken-narrative in which the actors describe their own character’s activities and each other’s, while dramatizing particular conversations or encounters. This becomes deeply engaging and adds a fluid quality to a quick succession of scenes. It departs from films like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short by sidestepping the complexities of the financial dealings that led to the 2008 crash. Instead, throughout each of the play’s three sections, shown together on one night, it is the human story, the family tragedy that Massini wishes us to see, how a man content to own a single shop spawned a trading empire that became greedier with each generation. The monetary complexities of loans to people who couldn’t pay, of buying debt and tricky stock manoeuvres you can find elsewhere, this is not so much what happened as why.

Part I: Three Brothers takes the story from Henry’s embarkation to Mayer joining Emanuel in New York, Part II: Fathers and Sons picks up the story until the morning of the Wall Street Crash, while Part III: The Immortals bookends its narrative with financial crises, finishing on that fatal autumn day in 2008. Over the course of three gripping hours, Massini contrasts growing profit with declining religious observance as the once devoted Jewish family trade-in their sacred rituals to focus on business as usual, and it’s notable that days of mourning and beard growth are, generations later, reduced to a few minutes silence before the continual clamour of the trading floor resumes.

And within that, there is a continual reminder of the wealth and status of America founded on waves of immigration from Europe, with their continual challenge to earn social status. This plays out not only in the original Lehmans trying to win prospective brides among the established elite, but in the growing Americanisation of their children and grandchildren, with Massini arguing that the Lehmans born in the USA have a different hunger, one that breeds confidence and inalienable right. Even in the post-Lehman family era at the end of the play it is a Hungarian who heads the company, a statement on the continued role that immigration has played in the shaping of a superpower.

What Power’s adaptation and Mendes’s direction does so brilliantly is to draw out the changing notion of belief, of fate and of trust. The original brothers have integrity, they believe in the power of their God and ask the men of the South, the plantation owners and local governors, to trust them personally, which they do. A century on and that belief is now invested in the mythical money that sits on balance sheets and trading screens, the men themselves, like Philip, Bobby and their non-Lehman successors at the company feel like Gods themselves, commanding empires of words and numbers, none of it with any physical substance.

Power and Mendes also carefully mark the various times in Lehman Brothers’ history when the firm came close to failure, when the literal and metaphorical fires almost consumed them. The burning cotton fields that led them to their first government investment after the American Civil War sit notably against the dark days of 1929 when somehow the family clung on, emerging into a new era of business even stronger than before, until the post-war division between banking and trading consumed them. There is a huge tragedy about a family who begin and end with nothing. As Simon Russell Beale’s character momentously states in Part III, “they were immortal until they weren’t.”

There really is no better choice for a project like this than Mendes whose recent stage-work has created a feel of epic intimacy. With his King Lear for the National some years ago and in particular The Ferryman (of which Mendes’s direction was like musical conduction), his ability to paint on a huge canvas, to show size, scale, history and reach while at the same time boiling that down to the personal relationship between two people is a pure joy. He wants the audience to care for the original brothers, to appreciate their desire to succeed, their fascination with America and how touching the destruction of their legacy becomes. Yet in every decision, every dream, every change of direction, Mendes makes you feel the long-term ramifications, knowing it’s another step towards their own destruction a hundred years later.

Set-designer Es Devlin has done some of her best work here on Lehman, and like many before her reduces the expanse of the Lyttelton stage by creating a huge glass and steel modern office set with large boardroom and two smaller meeting spaces, amongst which the actors create a century of history. It may have been simpler to fly-in backdrops for each era, but instead the three brothers walk like ghosts around the future, the office-set a constant reminder of where all their effort and toil ended-up. It has an ominous quality that works beautifully with Luke Halls wrap-around video screens that project scenes of the cotton fields of the Alabama countryside one minute and New York skyscrapers the next, all predominantly in black and white, views from the glass office windows, a presence but not a distraction.

Mendes uses both to considerable effect, rotating the set as a nod to the passing years, or during moments of high drama as events spiral out of control. One of the best scenes is during the latter part of the show as the last Lehman, Bobby, and his colleagues do a twist to indicate the wildness of the traders doing their inexplicable work, and rather than rotate the office, the video screen display of stocks start to spin, building to a rapid blur so that it becomes hard to tell what is still and what is moving, a clever and pointed comment about the heady free-for-all that became the 1980s and 90s on Wall Street.

The Lehman Triology has six major characters and a secondary cast of wives, children, colleagues, Rabbis and politicians that could easily require a sizeable company of actors. Unlike earlier version with a much larger cast, Director Sam Mendes slims this down to just three actors onstage for the duration who play all the roles between them and, while dressed for 1844 and standing in 2008, have nothing but words to conjure for us the history and atmosphere of America from the coach-and-horses days of the mid-nineteenth century South to the New York of the twenty-first century. A feat which they achieve extremely effectively and with incredible power.

These are tour de force performances from Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, who work superbly together to create a much wider ensemble with just a few “bankers boxes”, the cardboard storage containers that so many employees used to remove their things from their failed company, as props. Russell Beale’s Henry may be short-lived but has a determination to succeed, and as the “Head” establishes what will be a considerable legacy. But Russell Beale clearly has most fun as comic sketches of so many other characters, girlish debutants and embittered wives, precocious children and eventually a more substantial role as Emanuel’s son, the rather cold Philip, who first inherited the business, shocking his father with the shift from products to money as its core focus.

As Emanuel, Ben Miles brings confidence and command to the suave middle brother who charms the Alabama gentry as easily as his wins-over New York society. Emanuel is the most ambitious of the brothers, eager and determined to expand, but shrewd in his choices and it is no surprise that it is his line that inherits the bank. Miles lends him great charisma which he later brings to the smaller role of Herbert (Mayer’s son) who utilised the family charm and killer instinct to become Governor of New York and eventually a Senator. Miles also brings home the stark personal cost of financial collapse at the start of Part III, ominously and emotively revealing the quick success of stockbroker suicides in 1929.

Mayer Lehman is the most reticent of the three, and Adam Godley reveals a quieter, more thoughtful character, nicknamed “Spud” as a child, and not considered the intellectual equal of his siblings. Yet, he rises to the occasion after Henry’s death to partner his remaining brother in the firm. Godley also plays Emanuel’s grandson Bobby (Philip’s son), an aloof aesthete who invests in art while, as an old man, takes the firm into the computer age, heralding its own destruction as the company owner  unable to understand the mechanics of the business he’s running.

You are completely in their thrall from start to finish, fully invested in the simplicity of the story-telling as the actors transport you with them across country and through time. The Lehman Trilogy is a substantial achievement, a beautifully balanced depiction of the role of one family in a much wider history of America. It’s focus on belief – first in God and then in money – argues that the financial crisis was caused by wider society turning its face away from the banking industry, unable and unwilling to comprehend the complex systems it had generated, because all the while the money kept rolling-in that faith was justified. Ultimately though, this brilliant and powerful piece of theatre reveals the sadness of legacy, how easy destruction can be when you reach too high, and the tragedy of three brother betrayed by their own successors.

The Lehman Trilogy is at the National Theatre until 20 October, and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


%d bloggers like this: