Tag Archives: Play

From Stage to Screen: Allelujah! – Bridge Theatre

Allelujah - Bridge Theatre

70 years ago, the NHS came into being, and not too long after that the first medical dramas followed. The history of our free health service and the history of television almost go hand-in-hand. Medical soaps and dramas dominated the schedules for decades, until arguable crime replaced them as our favourite genre. A particular affinity with the screen, early examples like Doctor Kildare, General Hospital and Dr Finlay’s Case Book evolved into much-loved American dramas like ER and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as the invincible long-running shows Casualty, Doctors and Doc Martin – the world of doctors, nurses and patients is ever ripe for dramatic interpretation.

But that’s only the tip of the medical iceberg; during the lifespan of the NHS, a plethora of documentary series from 24 hours in A&E to Embarrassing Bodies have given us plenty of fly-on-the-wall access and real-life insight. Meanwhile film has also used the hospital as its location many times, and long before more recent American examples including Extreme Measures and Parkland, British movie depictions started with the gentle humour of Doctor in the House and its ensuing sequels, and the cheeky naughtiness of numerous Carry Ons (Nurse, Doctor, Again Doctor and Matron). Popular culture has, then, long reflected the intensity, silliness and political deprivation that has blighted the development of our free health service in the last 70 years.

Theatre though has paid relatively little regard to the medical services, and despite Nina Raine’s Tiger Country, last revived at the Hampstead Theatre in 2014, and The Globe’s Doctor Scroggy’s War set during the 1914-1918 conflict, few plays have used the hospital or doctor’s surgery as their primary focus. The doctor as a character turns-up all over the place, from Agatha Christie suspects to Patrick Marber lovers (in Closer), but their own environment has been strangely neglected by playmakers. So the duel promise of a new NHS-based play written by Alan Bennett – his first in six years – is interesting for many reasons, not least that it will receive its very own cinema transfer on 1 November, a medium that given the screen history of the NHS, may change our perception of the production.

Bennett is easily the biggest name to premiere a play during the Bridge Theatre’s first year of operation. Set in a tradition “cradle to grave” hospital, Allelujah! has quite a broad remit, tackling issues of individual patient care, hospital management, the closure and integration of smaller facilities and the politically sensitive cuts advocated by central Government. Bennett’s writing touches on so many issues that, understandably, his narrative frame becomes rather over-stretched so the forces that compel the core story become a little contorted.

But to what extent is this the consequence of its theatrical form, a place where conventions of drama create certain structural preconceptions about story and character? Seeing Bennett’s medical story on a screen may lend it an entirely new face, where the broad episodic structure of the writing and its impassioned personal versus the political plot may seem more at home among the serialised medical dramas seen every week on screen. Our leading playwrights are just as likely to be seen penning screen-dramas and forthcoming attractions include Mike Bartlett’s 6-part series Press in October set in a news agency and James Graham’s Brexit drama next spring. With so much crossover between stage and screen, seeing Bennett’s latest play in a specifically-commissioned cinema presentation after the run has officially ended feels like a logic step.

Facing closure, The Beth hospital remains a haven for geriatric patients who form a choir to liven-up their stay. When the father of a political aide is admitted, he cycles to the hospital to visit him one last time despite their estrangement. Unbeknown to the staff, Colin is responsible for the policy that will lead to the merger, and when a documentary crew arrive to film a fly-on-the-wall series everyone tries to be on their best behaviour. But with the lives of vulnerable patients in their hands, not all of the hospital staff are quite what they seem.

The three strands of Bennett’s play attempt to shine a broad comic light on our current health provision while making a rallying cry for its future protection. First, it examines the mixed approach to healthcare for the elderly and the value we place on long life versus quality of life, which is one of the most successful themes Bennett explores in Allelujah! Although some critics found the musical sequences a little jarring and designated too much room in an otherwise packed 2.5 hours of theatre, there is merit in them, reflecting the community spirit that smaller hospitals can generate and serving as a timely reminder that mentally, if not physically, these characters have rich emotional lives connecting them directly, through song, to the memories and emotions of their youth.

It is hardly a coincidence that La La Land has reinvigorated the fantasy song and dance sequence on screen, so Bennett draws on this to take his characters away from the mundane and beleaguered into an alternate reality and happier times. And, by limiting the major set-pieces, like La La Land, Bennett actively juxtaposes the everyday with the grand romance of the musical. In between the showcase numbers, many of the film’s scenes show Mia and Sebastian’s relationship played out in ordinary locations by two ordinary people looking for a break. If it’s good enough for Damien Chazelle, it’s good enough for Alan Bennett, and Allelujah! puts its choir in a bubble that separates them briefly from the reality of ill health and old age. These sequences, choreographed by Arlene Phillips, should make even more of an impact in a cinema where audiences are more used to the stylistic movie techniques and allusions that Bennett employs.

The second strand is a political one in which the controversial march of progress is measured against its personal impact. The depersonalisation of NHS services, the drive for efficiency savings, targets and reduction of overheads affects debate about the success of our current healthcare structure, with Whitehall notably divorced from the reality of caring for the sick. Bennett uses political aide Colin (Samuel Barnett) as a cipher for London, modernity and centrist control that ranks statistical success above the people being cared for.

Joe – a former miner – easily becomes one of Allelujah!’s most sympathetic characters, a kind and engaging creation whose complex relationship with his son, and fond memories of dancing in his youth which he recreates with Sister Gilchrist are played with considerable pathos. There is a really interesting dynamic between Joe (Jeff Rawle) and his son (Samuel Barnett) as their bedside meetings result in loaded silences and strained conversation, belying the genuine affection that they have for one another, and speaking volumes about the conventions of masculinity and pride that prevent a reconciliation. Bennett offers small hints at their background, at the local versus metropolitan world view that has driven them apart, but it’s an area that is frustratingly under-explored as the core drama evolves away from their meaningful interaction.

Bennett’s writing has always been at its best when showing the intimate contradictions of human relationships and personalities that can come across so well in screen close-ups. Comic on the surface and desperately sad or lonely underneath, this complicated connection between father and son should have been the main thrust of the story, driving the dramatic narrative with Joe becoming slowly more unwell as Colin’s merger policy takes effect, uniting the personal and the political in the way Bennett intends. Both actors suggest much of this, but the space to develop is reduced by Allelujah!’s third, and theatrically least successful, strand.

To prevent spoilers its impossible to describe this section as its occurrence is sudden and deliberately surprising, but it drags the show away from its original purpose, muddies the narrative and sets-up a central inconsistency just before the interval that is never satisfactorily resolved. Yet, this section will almost certainly play better on screen where the melodrama and overly-contrived nature of the storyline will have more in common with the commonplace life and death-jeopardy scenarios of most televised medical drama. In the kind of theatre that Bennett creates this feels more out of place than any amount of nostalgic musical sequences can ever do, leaving you unsure whether Bennett is campaigning to save smaller hospitals or revealing the abuse of power they facilitate.

Allelujah! may not be Bennett’s finest play but it has a lot going for it, not least the creation of a suite of characters that you want to know more about – it’s just a shame you never really do. From Gwen Taylor’s bolshie Lucille to Simon Williams’s Ambrose as a former English teacher reduce by age to Patricia England as Mavis the eccentric showgirl still determined to be beautiful. So many potentially fascinating lives are offered-up but never given a proper chance to link their wonderful backstories to the modern day in the way that, say, Follies managed so extraordinarily this year.

The 1 November cinema screening, steeped in the history of medical dramas, will be kinder to Bennett’s set-up than perhaps the theatre space has been. Large cast, multi-strand narratives with pacey incident-based drama and short scenes are the bread and butter of screen depictions of healthcare, so Allelujah! fits more completely into this genre than perhaps the different demands of the stage. As theatre, although it has plenty of potential and all the elements we’ve come to expect from a Bennett play, this needed to be more streamlined. Despite a productive partnership with Nicholas Hytner, the Artistic Director hasn’t taken a firm enough line with the work – arguably true of all of Bennett’s plays since The History Boys. Sometimes, even a national treasure needs an edit.

The overly dramatic final act, driven by plot twists, just distract from the people at the heart of the play, the patients, visitors and staff of The Beth hospital, and serves to dampen Bennett’s scathing political comment on the failure of the NHS to serve its community. With such an incredible cast of famous faces including the wonderful Deborah Findlay as Sister Gilchrist – a key role – Sasha Dhawan as a newly arrived immigrant doctor on a student visa and Peter Forbes (the Follies connection) as a slick hospital manager, it seems a shame to have underused them all so cruelly – there are lots of half-ideas that never quite make a whole.

Screening Allelujah! may well alter the viewer’s perspective, placing it within the tradition of television and film drama that lends itself to the cliffhanger-based six-part series that Bennett’s broad and episodic approach calls upon. Audiences love Bennett’s warm wit, comic parody and relatable characterisation, full of stoic people in difficult scenarios that can be incredibly moving. It may be diluted in the enormous Bridge auditorium but will the proximity of cameras offer cinema-goers a unique perspective? 1 November 2018 – make an appointment.

Allelujah! is at the Bridge Theatre until 29 September and will be screened as-live in cinemas on 1 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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Aristocrats – Donmar Warehouse

Aristocrats - Donmar Warehouse

Lovers of Irish drama will be in their element this summer as London theatres host three major productions with a fourth – a new Martin McDonagh play – arriving at The Bridge in early autumn. Until then, a top-notch revival of McDonagh’s black comic treat The Lieutenant of Inishmore is playing to packed houses at the Noel Coward with Aidan Turner no small draw, while equally beloved TV star Colin Morgan leads a wonderful revival of Brien Friel’s Translations at the National Theatre which examines identity, language and community at a pivotal moment in Anglo-Irish history. Joining them is a Donmar Warehouse production of Friel’s lesser known play Aristocrats, a work so rarely considered that it hasn’t yet warranted its own Wikipedia page.

Written in 1979, just a year before the much stronger Translations, and peppered with the trademark Friel lyricism, Aristocrats never feels like an entirely successful construction. Previously staged by The National Theatre in 2005 with a then barely known Andrew Scott, Gina McKee and Derval Kirwan, as well as a 2014 production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, this latest version will likely be a first viewing for much of the audience. Being Friel, it’s stuffed with themes and meaningful moments, but a relatively short run-time means its characters and dramatic arc never entirely convince.

At a now dilapidated “Great House” overlooking Ballybeg, the O’Donnell children gather for the wedding of Claire and her much older fiancé Jerry (who we never meet). With their ageing father slowly dying upstairs, cared for by elder sister Judith, the siblings reunite for one last event, Casimir travelling from Heidelberg, while Alice and her villager-husband Eamon return from London. An American journalist writing a book about Catholic Irish aristocracy becomes the catalyst for destruction as a sunny picnic is haunted by memory and dissatisfaction, and the fantasy begins to crumble.

Friel actively creates a Chekhovian flavour, paying homage to a writer whose work Friel adapted many times. Somehow, the play never quite reaches the subtle heights of its inspiration, but there are echoes of Chekhov in both the setting and many of the play’s themes. The poverty of the ruling classes is something the Russian dramatist referred to many times, as once great families are forced to sell the ancestral home, to downsize while simultaneously watching former villagers rise in their place. We see this in The Cherry Orchard as Lopakhin, a self-made man from the peasant class, becomes the social equal of the nobility, and Friel reflects this in the marriage of Alice and Eamon, the grandson of the former O’Donnell housekeeper. And while considerably less successful, the switch from romanticised memory of happier days to the hard reality of money and change is pure Chekhov, forcing characters to face difficult truths.

Part of the problem is that to establish enough information about the family situation and how each individual fits into the story Friel has to include considerable exposition. So, much of Act One, which takes place across two scenes, feels like an elaborate set-up with clunky descriptions of how everyone came to be here told to Tom (Paul Higgins), the journalist, who becomes a rather crude expository device. Friel attempts to soften the blow by making us wonder how much of what we hear is true and whether the family are actively deceiving Tom or themselves in repeating the celebrity-filled stories they’ve heard about their family history. By the end of Act One, Friel has done enough to intrigue, but the overly forced set-up leaves you dramatically unsatisfied, which Lyndsey Turner’s production cannot quite resolve.

The notably shorter Act Two is much stronger. Set some days later where a crisis has been reached and the four siblings must now face-the-future, here the nods to Chekhov work much better, which in the Donmar’s production, brings with it a more sombre tone. While the business is briskly managed, there is a clear contrast with the wistful picnic scene, as you feel that childhood has been packed away and most of the remaining family members head-off with greater certainty about who they are, no longer clouded by delusion and fantasy.

The play is rather overloaded with themes and references that receive only cursory exploration. Friel hints that the now decrepit former Judge was once a terrible father to his children which, coupled with their mother’s suggested suicide, has affected them all in slightly different ways, although this is never fully uncovered. Equally, the focus of Tom’s research on Catholic aristocracy creates a sense of historic isolation around the family in a nation filled with Protestant landlords, and this is reflected in the O’Donnell’s lack of sentimental attachment to the house or the area. Turner uses this to imply a real separation between the family and the village, as though the two coexist but lacking the feudal concept of noblesse oblige. However, other than Alice’s business-like rejection of inheritance in Act Two, there’s little time in the story to really tease out the national, economic and political consequence of being in a Catholic noble family.

Es Devlin has created a simple duck-egg blue sunken stage littered with laced cushions, beautiful fruit bowls and blowsy peonies, that gives an impression of Edwardian Anglicisation. Until Alice walks on in her lurid orange 1970s maxi-dress, it is deliberately difficult to quite pin down the era, and Devlin’s modern box with classical accents reflects Friel’s concern with identity and external influences shaping Irish heritage. Rather than a fussy mansion set Devlin uses a dollshouse for simplicity (although this has become an overly common reference, last seen in The Inheritance), while the backdrop is slowly peeled away by one actor to reveal a classical scene of a mother presiding over a picnic, reinforcing this idea of the family suffering stemming from childhood trauma.

Despite the core family being dominated by the three sisters, it is the male roles that feel more substantial. David Dawson’s Casimir is a talkative returnee, eager to make the picnic just-so and thrilled by the chance to relive so many childhood memories and games. Casimir is an effete and light presence, so Dawson plays him as a dream-like figure, almost as though the whole character has stepped directly from the Edwardian past. This adds quite well to the concept of truth that runs through the show, and several times other characters question how real Casimir’s German wife and three children really are, which reinforces the eagerness of the fake croquet and similar games that shape the picnic scene. Dawson intriguingly plays-up this ambiguity so we’re never quite sure if his Casimir is a just pleasant man, delighted with his life or a fantasist hiding behind a pretence of family.

The sisters are distinct but not quite so well drawn. Elaine Cassidy’s Alice is a troubled figure, the only member of the family to truly embrace the late 70s aesthetic in Moritz Junge’s psychedelic costume for the character. Alice has relatively little to say for much of the show, hungover, she ominously stalks the picnic trying to find respite from her implied troubles that seem to proceed from more than just a headache. Cassidy conveys a deep dissatisfaction with Alice’s life, an alcoholic who is less than enamoured of her husband or this return to a place she once escaped. But Friel doesn’t give us the chance to find out much more, so we never really get to know how her childhood created the unhappy woman she has become.

Eileen Walsh as matriarch Judith doesn’t appear until well into the first Act, having spent years taking care of their ailing father. She has an interesting monologue at the picnic in which she describes her intense daily routine as a substitute mother-figure caring for sister Claire and tending to their father, in which Walsh implies an erosion of her own humanity that permanent service has caused. But later, Walsh also shows us some steel as Judith refuses to be guided by her siblings and deliberately ignores references to a former relationship with Eamon. Again, why Judith has ended-up here and what this means for her character are left unexplored by Friel, although her future doesn’t seem any more hopeful.

The baby of the family Claire, played by Aisling Loftus, is even more dreamlike than her brother Casimir who she is clearly closest to. About to marry a man more than 30 years her senior, we learn very little about Claire except her love of playing the piano – here depicted by holding sheets of music implying more O’Donnell fantasy – and playing games. An accomplished young lady in the traditional sense, Loftus’s Claire, like Dawson, becomes a hazy dreamlike figure, another echo from the Edwardian past. But the effect of her childhood, why she is seeking a father-figure and the relationship with her sisters is left aside.

Beyond the family, Emmet Kirwan’s Eamon is a gregarious figure with an undertone of something darker, a possible bully who we learn early on struck his wife the previous day. Interestingly, with antecedents in domestic service at the House, Eamon seems most protective of the place, expressing a possessiveness that the family don’t share. Friel tells us he was once a villager and, at one time or another, romanced all the sisters, but the nature of those relationship aren’t fully considered, even though Eamon represents the rise of the “new man”, coming to dominate the aristocratic people he would once have bowed to.

In a summer of great Irish drama, this feels unsatisfactory by comparison. Visually, Turner’s image of broken modernity is an interesting one, with old and new pulling against each other throughout the play. With press night ahead this week, other than relishing the charm of Friel’s language, there’s little for the cast to improve because the faults in Aristocrats lie with Friel. This production draws-out all of the core themes but cannot overcome the play’s reliance on heavy exposition and failure to satisfactorily resolve its own questions about the past of these characters. If you have the choice, probably see Translations instead.

Aristocrats is at the Donmar Warehouse until 22 September. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Othello – The Globe

Othello - The Globe

The return of Mark Rylance to The Globe main stage is the lynchpin of Michelle Terry’s first season as Artistic Director and luring her predecessor back to play Iago in a new version of Othello is a major coup. It’s been a quiet season for Terry so far, not glowing but largely positive reviews for The Globe’s return to its more traditional approach to staging Shakespeare’s work, divested of the divisive sets and sound systems that defined the Emma Rice era. No one loves the traditional Globe more than Rylance and his return can be seen as an affirmation of Terry’s vision. With so much collective experience of staging Shakespeare in this theatre, and the skills of an actor at the helm who in 2016 managed the rare feat of winning an Oscar and being nominated for an Olivier in the same year, why is this Othello not better?

Shakespeare’s enduring story of sexual and political jealousy seems like an easy win for The Globe. Othello is one of the more accessible tragedies; there are no intangible musings on life and death or need to understand how supernatural forces affect human agency, instead Othello is driven by the simple idea of one man deceptively and invidiously poisoning the happiness of another. While the romance with Desdemona is best remembered, the play’s central focus on the misguided friendship between Othello and Iago holds the story together and focuses the expanding drama. Often in Shakespeare, the audience holds knowledge that one or more of the characters is denied, we know when someone is in disguise or when a murder has occurred. In Othello, we are party to Iago’s plot to destroy his friend and Commander, so Shakespeare deliberately makes the viewer both complicit and powerless bystanders in order to build a sense of inevitability in the destruction of the characters and their world.

But like Macbeth the success of this tragedy depends on how effectively their confined scenario is created and how well the psychological development of the characters is managed. To truly believe in Iago’s dastardly plan to make Othello mistrust his wife, the audience must be convinced by his motivation, to understand why he feels aggrieved in the first place and crucially why he chooses this particular path above seeking alternative forms of revenge. Finally, there must also be a sense of the social structure in which they are operating – the separation between male and female characters, the ability to prevent individuals from encountering each other and revealing the truth – which explain how Iago is able to maintain his falsehoods without fear of discovery.

The Globe’s new production is yet to make the most of that audience relationship, building a conspiratorial alliance between stage and viewer that is so vital to understand and engage with the play. Whatever route the Company has chosen is not being effectively communicated, so it becomes difficult to understand why individuals behave as they do and what exactly is at stake. There are several reasons for this; first, there is no clear vision for this Othello and none of the key questions have been answered by the production. It is set in a somewhat ambiguous location with an amusing Russian Revolution meets New Romantic aesthetic, allowing everyone to swirl around in embroidered gowns, woollen trench-coats and berets, but the social and military limitations of Othello’s world are inconclusive.

You never feel, as you should, that Iago’s schemes are able to succeed because the men exist within the confines of a geographical army base and must observe the restrictions of military hierarchy. Thus, unable to daily socialise with the people of Cyprus, or encounter anyone outside army life other than in the play’s early scenes, or able to speak openly to one another while on duty, the suspicion the Iago seeds can take root and fester. The villain knows he would be soon discovered in gossipy society, but within this structure he is able to control the ebb and flow of information reaching him commander’s ears.

Likewise, the physical separation of men and women in the play is deliberate and, by preventing contact between husband and wife for much of the central part of the action, Shakespeare ensures that Desdemona has no opportunity to allay these fears or abut the false accusations until Othello is already past the point of no return. Designer Jonathan Fensom and Director Claire van Kampen never make this clear in The Globe’s interpretation, the audience doesn’t notice the shift in location nor how this creates a new psychological environment in which Iago’s betrayal can freely operate.

While The Globe seems to have returned to a minimal no-sets policy, this has resulted in some curious directional decisions which become equally alienating for the audience. In the opening scene, Iago and Roderigo discuss Othello’s recent marriage, but the actors deliver their lines while circling the stage pillars in rapid figures of eight. This constant movement, and the subsequent breathlessness of the actors, is a bizarre feature of the entire show, with characters frequently moving from one side of the stage to the other mid-sentence, never quite letting the core moments settle or resonate. Perhaps without a set, the space feels intimidating from the stage, but the result is a too frantic production that denies any chance of stillness or the opportunity to build sufficient tension that allow the audience to absorb crucial plot developments.

Utilising the full stage to ensure all sides of the auditorium can see and hear what is happening is great, and there’s nothing more frustrating than all of the action occurring on the opposite side to your seat, but here the constant movement proves counter-productive, actively undermining both the visual and auditory experience of the show. Even from the pit, at relatively close quarters to the stage, it is difficult to hear every word, particularly when half sentences are interrupted by the actor’s movement to another location – presumably the sound quality in the upper levels of the theatre will be hugely problematic. A more effective approach would be to base entire scenes on either side of the space which still balances the action without the whirly confusion of people inexplicably marching up and down. It is a fast-paced play, but this impedes rather than heightens our connection with it, suggesting a fear of exposure that a bare stage may create.

Rylance’s Iago is one of the most anticipated performances of the year, so it’s curious that it should be so unremarkable. With a couple of previews remaining, Rylance hasn’t taken a particular point of view on the character that ties the recitation of the lines to any specific decision about Iago’s motives or purpose. This surprising lack of resolution has much in common with Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth (himself a remarkable Iago in Nicholas Hytner’s 2013 production), in that neither actor seems entirely comfortable in the role or able to make sense of the conflicting ambitions and fears that explain the character.

What Iago is doing in this play and why, we never really find out. Is he a sociopath enjoying the destruction of people around him for its own sake, or are there more complicated jealousies at work? Kinnear made it clear that being overlooked for promotion turned his Iago against his former friend, but although Rylance’s Iago quickly mumbles something about a rumoured affair between his own wife, Amelia, and Othello, and some attraction to Desdemona, we’re never told why he’s doing it. This is compounded by the unusual speed with which Rylance is delivering the lines, the rapidity of which undermines the clarity and prevents us from understanding the character’s aims, losing that important sense of confederacy between the villain and his audience.

It is quite an unexpected performance, and while the show is clearly attempting to maintain a sense of pace, of events rapidly spiralling out of control that unusually for The Globe brings the show in at around two and half hours, it doesn’t result in a real understanding of the character or his motivation. Anyone who has seen Rylance before will know he is a sensitive and accomplished performer of Shakespeare, he loves to play to the crowd while able to extract the subtle nuances and humanity of his characters, which makes this surprisingly workman-like approach quite inexplicable. Even an underpowered Rylance performance is better than most, and will certainly please his fans, but you’re not feeling a huge investment from him in the role – it’s as though he’s barely there.

Despite the uncertain approach to showing themes and purpose, both André Holland as Othello and Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona fair rather better. While the lack of resolution around them hampers our perspective on Othello’s responses, Holland has a command of the stage that suits the social status of his character. This Othello is confident and comfortable in himself cutting the worries of race and prejudice that other interpretations have emphasised, although Holland uses his natural American accent to convey a sense of ‘otherness’ that still sets him apart from a more diverse British cast. That happiness with his lot means the rapid decline into distrust and anger seems more dramatic. Holland’s Othello suggests a respectful and deep love for Desdemona that feels like a credible marriage, while their final confrontation is loaded with danger and tension.

Desdemona can be a rather thankless part, and even some of the best productions can be dragged down by an insipid interpretation that leaves you wondering why everyone is losing their head over her. Yet here, Warbeck has a rational strength that makes her a worthy match for the army commander, delivering her lines quite naturally without any of the shrill simpering that blights over versions, and making her all the more sympathetic, an innocent fatality in a political game. While it would be useful to see some contact with Aaron Pierre’s Cassio, at least to give Iago’s rumour some grounding, the rest of the cast lack direction. Cassio is likeable, while Sheila Atim’s Emilia eventually has her moment of resistance, but there is too little ambiguity in the overall show design to allow us to understand why Cassio is an obvious target to be Iago’s fall guy (rather than Rodrigo who openly expresses a desire for Desdemona), and what hold he has over his wife to force her complicity.

With press night imminent, there seems to be much to do if this version of Othello is to shine, and although any production can have an off-night similar reports are emerging of rushed lines and audio difficulties across the early run. As it stands, if you have never seen Othello before then this watchable version conveys the basic story, but it never gets to grips with the dark forces at the heart of the play, or the carefully constructed machinations of its villain. The Globe can do better than this, and Rylance certainly knows how the power of this writer in this theatre can be an illuminating combination. It needs to decide what it wants to say and give its star the time to deliver the performance we all know he is capable of.

Othello is at The Globe until 13 October and tickets start at £5 for standing and £22 seated. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Exit the King – National Theatre

Exit the King - National Theatre

This week in quite different productions two Kings will be forced to confront the limits of their power, question whether they are fit to govern the realm and contemplate their own mortality for the first time. On both occasions what the audience sees will be the death pangs of their reign, the final struggle for autonomy and influence as they fruitlessly cling to power while those around them slowly withdraw support for their declining monarch, abandoning them to their inevitable fate. With press performances for the emotive King Lear at the Duke of York’s Theatre and the National Theatre’s quirky take on Ionesco’s absurdist drama Exit the King falling on successive nights, thematically there is considerably more that unites than divides these beleaguered princes.

Absurdist dramas are not quite so in vogue as they once were, and while the odd production pops-up at pub theatres and fringe venues, these 1950 and 60s classics rarely make it to the main stages. Modern attempts to recreate the anarchic oddity of their predecessors can feel rather forced or too consciously zany as the rather tiresome Pity provided this week, yet the best absurdist work succeeds and survives because beneath the strange surface it has something important to say about the state of the world or the human condition. Exit the King plays with our fears of death and the harsh inevitability of our demise; prince or pauper, it comes to us all regardless.

The 1950-70s were a hugely experimental time in European drama, and the era has left us with some of the twentieth-century’s best-known dramatists – Pinter, Beckett and Ionesco. But the work can be difficult to watch today with its loops of logic and flights of fancy that can seem daunting and incomprehensible in our relatively conventional West End structures. Pinter’s focus on tone rather than plot can be confusing, while the increasingly elaborate chaos or surreal lack of purpose in Beckett and Ionesco can make it hard to see their point when nothing appears to happen. Fortunately, Exit the King is one of Ionesco’s more straightforward stories with a handy time-limited structure that drives the play.

King Berenger wakes up one morning, over 400 years into his reign, to discover this is the day he will die. Having lived a vibrant life with two wives, both still present at court, and a series of great victories to look back on Berenger refuses to believe this is his last day on earth. Surrounded by his regal first wife Maguerite, and the more vibrant (and much younger) second wife Marie, as well as his physician, cleaner and guard, the King will pass through the various stages of acceptance before the fatal moment arrives, but will he go quietly?

Known for his emotional reinvigoration of the classics including Don Juan in Soho and Three Days on the Country alongside his new work as a writer, Patrick Marber directs with skill, favouring the more macabre and foreboding aspects of the plot over its sillier elements.  And in doing so, Marber highlights the parallels with King Lear. This faux medieval world also reflects a view of power that Shakespeare also knew, of monarchs divinely appointed by God, sitting above the petty rules of the common man. They command, control and shape society around them and believe themselves capable of fantastical acts. When Berenger at lasts realises his powers are waning, Ionesco represents this as a loss of magic, and the protagonist is no longer able to command the air to move or someone’s hat to rise at will. Like Lear, stripped of the ceremony and mystique of kingship all his frailties are exposed and the subsequent decline is rapid.

Both men call upon the natural world as a symbol of their lost power, failing to stem the tides that will engulf them and suddenly buffeted by the same winds as ordinary mortals, no longer shielded by their divine status. We see a physical crack appear in the wall of the palace which only widens as the time draws near, and although Berenger may not be physically cast out as Lear is, in the same way the world starts to recede from him as we hear that the cessation of his reign has driven people from the land, an empty kingdom with a dying King as dispossessed and purposeless as the wandering Lear. And like his Shakespearian counterpart, this causes Berenger to enter a kind of madness, no longer himself as he grapples for the first time not just with his own humanity but the imminent termination of it, as initial denial gives ways to resignation and despair.

Marber has taken quite an interesting approach that retains some of the extremes of behaviour and occasionally the daffy moments that earn some laughs, but he weighs it down with a darker overlay of fear and inevitability. It’s absurd yes, but also unsettling so the humour becomes wry and even uncomfortable as a once regal symbol becomes a frightened man begging for more life. Marber manages the pitch fairly well which veers continually from Berenger’s deep exploratory monologues as he tries to make sense of his life and imminent death, to the brusque management of his final hour by Maguerite, desperate to get on with it.

Designer Anthony Ward has set this somewhere between the aesthetic of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts and a slightly heightened mittle-European kingdom, full of medieval allusion, hierarchy and glamour. There is a slight seediness to the visuals which constantly, and deliberately, undercut the regality of the court, everything seems as though it has lived a tad too long with the King himself a vision of grubby excess and entitlement, as though his inevitable demise is now long overdue. It purposefully avoids generating any sympathy for the characters, reinforcing Ionesco’s implication that this is a death that needs to happen. And for the most part it is simply staged with a cracked stone backdrop bearing the royal crest and representing the palace with various hidden doors and window panels that allow Marber to vary the location and height of the production.

As King Berenger, Rhys Ifans turns up the volume on the grimy majesty of the King, not to the point of caricature, but enough to create a slightly off-kilter tone. His monarch is almost distasteful to look at, decked in pyjamas with an overly painted face which as the performance unfolds becomes caked and broken by sweat. Ifans shows the swings of mood from angry determination that he still has power to monumental self-pity and depression, raging and cursing against his fate. But he’s never really pitiable, and even as Ifans holds the room in the numerous soliloquies as Berenger tries to sum up his life, achievements and fears, Ifans ensures he remains an interesting but perishing figure, there to represent Ionesco’s theme on life clinging far beyond its natural expiration.

Equally interesting is the role of Queen Marguerite whose blank honest continually intrudes on her former husband’s self-pity, hastening the King’s end with frequentreminders of the ticking clock. Dressed by Ward, Indira Varma presents a stylish and stately figure, a 1960s Princess Margaret meets Elizabeth Taylor cross in a beautifully-tailored black velvet gown. Yet Varma offers a complex and cleverly ambiguous figure whose own motivations in the management of this death are highly questionable. Why is Queen Marguerite so keen to tell Berenger the truth, is it an act of kindness to prepare him for the worst or does she intend to profit from his passing? Varma visible scoffs every time her rival Marie speaks, showing considerable contempt for her younger and more romantic replacement, and although she allows everyone to moan and wail without interruption, she instantly snaps the subject back to the inevitability of the death on their conclusion. She seems wise and sensible, a much needed refresh in the kingdom, but a giveaway line perhaps in the play’s closing moments as Marguerite eventually guides Berenger towards the light, divesting himself of his body and worldly goods, where she instructs him to give the kingdom clutched in his hand to her – part of the ritual of death or a genuine power grab? Varma never let’s you know for sure, which makes the performance all the more intriguing.

Supporting the leads, Amy Morgan’s Marie is a flouncing French princess, all delicacy and devotion to her ailing husband, preferring to remind him of their happy past than prepare him for the future. Adrian Scarborough never lets you down, playing the comic oddity of the Doctor with a side-line in astronomy and Merlin impressions with verve, while Debra Gillett as Juliette the maid and Derek Griffiths as the Guard making the court announcements well utilise their smaller roles as equally peculiar inhabitants of the strange court of King Berenger. Together, they represent the various classes of an almost feudal structure that flows down from the King, through the middle-class professionals to the working classes at the bottom, a microcosm of the wider society. Ionesco’s point is that fawn and then flee as they do in the face of the King’s demise, death is a classless pursuer and it will be their turn soon enough.

Translated by Simon Scarfield, like much absurdist work of its time, Exit the King is less concerned with plot than with exploring themes of human behaviour. Patrick Marber’s engaging production builds on the central strangeness of Ionesco’s work, attempting to break down our ongoing battle with the idea of death and why no one wants to face it until they have to. The characters may turn away leaving Marguerite to conduct Berenger’s final moments, but would she be so composed when her turns comes? The scale of that question is explored in the way Marber, Ward and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone manage the Olivier stage throughout the production, carving its depth in half for much of the action, with a small apron into the audience, only revealing its full extent, grandness and gravity at the point the King eventually exits, making for a notable conclusion.

With a few days before press night, Marber’s production will inevitably sharpen and while Exit the King takes a more linear approach to storytelling than similar work of its era, the plot itself is deliberately secondary to the themes and behaviours presented, which can be both testing and disconcerting. The association with King Lear is an interesting (and timely) one, allowing West End audiences to see both shows in quick succession and appreciate their grand discussions of mortality all the more. Ultimately, they tell us that whoever you are in life and whatever your achievements, the conclusion is the same – we may never be ready or brave enough to face it but, in the persons of Edgar and (hopefully) Maguerite, we can try to leave good behind.

Exit the King is at the National Theatre until 6 October and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


King Lear – Duke of York’s Theatre

Ian McKellen in King Lear

Our collective theatre memory is full of remarkable performances, whenever a show is revived someone in the production or at least one of the critics will refer to a definitive performance they once saw from a great actor of the past, a benchmark for every subsequent version we see. This is particularly true for Shakespeare, so as we continue to revere Olivier, Gielgud and the rest, audiences may begin to think they will never see anything to match them. It’s all nonsense of course, the stand-out performances in any era are often only judged so in retrospect and modern theatre offers much that will be remembered. But once in a while you know you’re in the presence of greatness and Ian McKellen’s King Lear will be talked about for years to come.

Shakespeare’s plays are eternally relevant, whatever the external socio-political circumstances of the times, they fit, and thus King Lear comes around with considerable regularity. It’s a difficult play to pace correctly and can sometimes feel overly ponderous or meandering. By extension the star power of whoever play’s Lear can also drown out the surround cast, diluting the important political and dynastic machinations that drive the plot.

No such worries in this carefully controlled and cohesive transfer from the Chichester Festival Theatre, the latest of their programme to come into town, in which Director Jonathan Munby gives equal weighting to the three elements of the plot, tempering the extraordinary charisma of his leading man by generating interest in the play’s contingent storylines – the grasping power of Regan and Goneril, and the destruction of Gloucester’s family.

The corrupting nature of power and its association with ensuing madness are frequent themes across many of Shakespeare’s political and tragic plays. Macbeth violently seizes power and loses his sanity, Hamlet’s balance is disturbed by his Uncle’s equally aggressive dispatch of the rightful King, while Coriolanus’s delusional obsession with his own popularity leads to tyranny. This version of King Lear uses his faulty decision to share his kingdom as the very essence of his madness. The poor use of power is a symptom of what’s to come rather than his subsequent rejection, placing the monarch in a web of intrigue that seemed always waiting to ensnare him.

With so many shouty Lear’s in recent years, it’s refreshing to see an interpretation that’s considerably more varied, drawing out the sensitive and gentle aspects of lost identity to temper the fewer, and here more unexpected, moments of rage and cruelty. There is a real honesty and sensitivity in the way Lear’s madness is presented, and, as anyone who has lived with dementia sufferers will know, there is huge variety in mood and interaction across any single day. Moments of perfect lucidity are common, intermingled with calm loops of memory and confusion about timelines, while the flashes of bitter anger and frustration pass as rapidly and vigorously as they emerged.

You see all of this in McKellen’s performance, and as he gives away his lands there are couple of small contortions of the face in which Lear struggles to retain his train of thought, and overwhelming emotion tries to force its way up his throat like reflux. This Lear does rage but only rarely, when he is unable to process the responses of those around him or his own feelings. The bitter curses he heaps on Goneril are all the more shocking for seeming to come from nowhere, one minute a reasonable conversation, the next an invective on sterility, before fading once more to a quieter resignation. You see this change of weather pass across McKellen’s face, a clear and subtle impression of those shifting faculties in his mind that become increasingly pitiable, rather than the result of his hateful tyranny. This is a Lear who cannot control what is happening to him and the result is very moving.

This softer approach also makes sense of the notion of injustice that plagues the King throughout the play, and the obsessive way his mind returns again and again to the clawing ingratitude of his two eldest daughters, reiterating the idea of this as a trigger rather than the sole cause of his decline. The melancholic sorrow with which McKellen’s Lear references the cause of his undoing implies the personal loss of a father’s deluded love for his ungrateful children rather than the more bombastic approaches to the character that emphasis the loss of sovereignty. This Lear sees the Duchesses of Cornwall and Albany for what they really are, and it breaks him.

McKellen is so quiet as Lear, with so much of his performance and emotion expressed in small contained movements, a tiny and frail human unable to fight against the elements and fates stacked against him. This stripping of kingship to reveal the fallible man below is something Shakespeare explored many times – not least in Henry V’s pre-battle qualms – and McKellen draws on that to considerable effect to show the easy ruin of a man whose anointed greatness is no barrier to pain, destitution and lovelessness.

McKellen is so memorable in this role because he slowly introduces Lear’s metamorphosis, cracking the surface of the monarch so chinks of confused mind start to show through the performance until only fragments of the true Lear are left, disparate and near unreachable. When early on he lingers a beat too long on a comment about treating Cordelia badly, it is so small a remark you almost miss it, but it reveals everything about the slow tearing at his heart and conscience that McKellen uses to rake across the mind of his character, a constant sense of thoughts in flux and flutter.

Despite his considerable star power, McKellen’s collaborative approach keeps the play perfectly in balance, leaving room for the intricate parallel narratives that reflect his own trajectory and allowing other characters equal space to shine, not least Luke Thompson’s Edgar driven to feign madness away from Court when his reputation is maligned by his base-born half-brother. Thompson’s star has been steadily rising for some time with notable roles in numerous classical productions, including a fresh take on Laertes in Robert Icke’s 2017 Hamlet where his approach mirrored the fatal indecision of Andrew Scott’s protagonist.

The role of Edgar can sometimes be too overplayed, to exuberantly mad when he assumes the name of Tom. Instead, Thompson uses his experience of Hamlet to provide a counterpoint to Lear’s decline, but with more stage time than his previous roles, this part gives him scope to display a range of skills. First seen as a clean-cut hero in appropriate military dress, attending on the pomp and ceremony of Lear’s Court, the panicked Edgar hides himself in the believable feigned madness of Tom, adopting three distinct accents to delineate the various personalities he assumes, including a very passable Scottish brogue as Tom.

There is also a vigorous and well executed fight scene in the play’s final moments as Edgar tries to disarm his knife-wielding brother in hand-to-hand combat, while Thompson also brings to bear all the tenderness and emotional sensitivity that Edgar feels for the destroyed parallel figures of his own father, Gloucester, and his plagued former monarch. He credible assumes the role of saviour, a good honest man whose moral rectitude and kind heart wins the respect of the audience and his kingdom.

There is a semi-religious concept of morality that runs through Director Jonathan Munby’s production, and aside from Edgar the only core player left standing is Anthony Howell’s Albany (who previously worked with Thompson on The Globe’s Julius Caesar), a man betrayed by his wife but presented as upstanding enough to retain his life and presumably the country. Claire Price as Goneril and Kirsty Bushell as Regan deliberately make the sisters initially more reasonable and less caricatured than other productions often do. They both appear modest and stately in declaring their love for their father, but power corrupts them. Price is a despairing country gentlewoman exasperated by her cantankerous parent, while Bushell’s more glamorous Regan has a potent sexually charged relationship with her husband (Daniel Rabin) that seems to quite naturally tip into sadism.

Like Hamlet, King Lear is a double tragedy and both plays show an ordinary family destroyed by its proximity to the throne, innocent casualties of wider political games. The Gloucester subplot is often the most poignant, particularly when the Royal Family are portrayed as unlikable tyrants, and Danny Webb’s Gloucester carefully draws-out all the emotion and sympathy the role can offer. The famous eye gouging scene is brutal as ever, but the clifftop despair and regret for his mistakes are made quite tenderly. As his scheming bastard son, James Corrigan is suitably villainous and calculating, easily pulling the strings of those around him to serve his own advancement.

Munby’s production is still a lengthy affair at around three and a half hours, but all the elements of the story are so well knitted together that it takes on its own momentum, even with a lengthy two hour run to the only interval. But there is a consistent vision for the show which balances and reflects the pitch of the performances, presenting a semi-military Royal state, not dissimilar from our own, that revels in its Court rituals as well its country pursuits. Designer Paul Wills surrounds the stage with a semi-circle of Jacobean panelling, and, in Goneril’s house, presents a dinner party full of men in country tweeds, a macho shooting party that looks, and behaves, like The Riot Club.

The first part of the show is performed on a blood red circle of carpet that becomes soaked in rain water which the actors must slosh around on, as though wading in their own wickedness. Events reach their crisis in an abattoir complete with carcasses and severed animal heads where Gloucester loses his eyes before the interval, but later as redemption and moral correction dominate the story, the circle is made white and the panelling peels back to reveal white walls. The carefully considered symbolism of the staging is subtle but reveals the slow unravelling of privilege, a monarchy wiped out and evil purged from the land.

Unusually, there is still more than a week of preview performances before Press Night, but this Chichester transfer has hit its stride early. After the scramble for tickets earlier this year, hour-long queues, having seats selected for you based on pay bands and crashing websites, just getting to the checkout may have seemed like a miracle, but it was worth it.  King Lear has long been a test for actors of a certain age, but the focus on the star playing the declining monarch can under-power the rest of the story. It’s a relief to see a production that tightens its core, with Munby giving equal weight to each strand so as to build proper momentum. A memorable interpretation with a theatre superstar giving one of his finest and most generous performances.

 King Lear is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 3 November and tickets start at £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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