Tag Archives: Play

The Cane – Royal Court

The Cane - Royal Court

Apologising for the past can be an emotive issue; while the physical and metaphorical wounds inflicted by countries, groups or individuals will have irrevocably altered the history of all involved, judging the past by the moral and ethical standards of the modern world is fraught with difficulty. Politicians love to do it, saying sorry to the wronged for everything we now consider to be inexcusable – the British Empire, the various wars of oppression and conquest that pepper our history as well as the acquisition of international treasures that fill most Western museums. But does it serve any real purpose, does apologising for the past become another insincere trick of diplomacy and should we just draw a line in the sand?

The play is set entirely in the house of Edward and Maureen a few days before Edward retires from teaching with a big farewell party planned. But growing crowds of angry pupils have gathered outside his home, incensed by the discovery of his role in caning boys when it was still legal to do so. Under siege for six days, Deputy Head Edward must complete a response to a damning school inspection when his estranged daughter Anna arrives, who works for the Academy group that takes over failing schools. As their family and professional pasts collide, the difference between justice and revenge becomes harder to determine.

Mark Ravenhill’s fascinating new play The Cane examines the issues of culpability for small-scale endorsed acts of violence and the nature of justice. He uses changed attitudes to corporal punishment to consider whether blame and guilt are the right responses to activities sanctioned by codes of practice at the time of infliction. Ravenhill is essentially asking whether these physically and emotionally scarring experiences should be pursued and scrupulously re-examined. A precedent set by the prosecution of historic cases of sexual assault and exposure of the culture of ingrained toxic masculinity have led to arrests and convictions, so should teacher-pupil violence be treated with the same seriousness?

To help us to decide, two questions run through the play, asking where the effects of crime endure should such cases be prosecuted, and at what point should the past be allowed to be the past? Using the school as a setting for this debate is a useful one, allowing Ravenhill to play with our societal nostalgia for the order and discipline of yesteryear where teachers were respected and power structures enforced with clear consequences for any misdemeanour. Yet, the cost of course was a state-sanctioned policy of violence against children in ways that seem unfathomable and outrageous to the modern eye. Was the world a genuinely better place when the cane was in use, turning-out educated pupils who went on to be model members of society, or did it produce scared and repressed individuals, haunted for the rest of their lives by the violation of their childhood by a trusted adult?

Our hazy fondness for the mythology of our past is a dangerous thing, one that entirely conflicts with our fetishisation of violence and its instruments that underlie much of British national identity. One of The Cane’s key strands focuses on the protection and preservation of the objects of caning, a reverence for them as historic artefacts that latterly belies their daily use. There is something here about the way we take objects out of context and purpose, putting them in glass boxes that bestows on them a reverence at odds with their functional use (e.g. an eighteenth-century chair was still just a chair to its original owner) and sanitises them, stripping them of their created purpose. Denuded of their reality, how innocent suits of armour, swords and guns look in museums never telling you how many deaths they were responsible for.

But this is far more than a treatise on corporal punishment and Ravenhill weaves all of these debates into an engaging and powerful three-hander that centres around a difficult family reunion that looks likely to explode at any time. Right from the start the difficulty of the relationship between Anna and her parents is clear, there is an immediate atmosphere, with the audience arriving in the middle of an already awkward encounter. Quickly Maureen suggests an estrangement, even an enmity between mother and daughter based on a tendency to violence that Anna claims not to remember.

As the story unfolds, Ravenhill toys with ideas of reconciliation and rapprochement as Anna and Edward in particular start to find common ground by working on his report together. Much of the drive in Vicky Featherstone’s 95-minute production comes from this power shift as various members of the family join forces against one another, as they confront their own difficult past as well as exploring Edward and Anna’s professional differences in approaches to caning. But this animosity is also entirely manipulated by Anna at particular moments in order to settle a score with her parents for past hurts, and while she genuinely seems to engage with them looking for bridges to build, at the same time she is an unpredictable force in the play whose motives and relationship with violence is not nearly as clear cut as we first assume.

This tendency to personal violence is really interesting and something that rips through The Cane, contrasting the educationally authorised violence of corporal punishment with the individual tempers of the characters that implies rather than demonstrates a history of home-based intimidation that is intriguing. Characters are accused of violent acts in the domestic and professional spheres but only two destructive incidents are shown, one driven by a hypnotic nostalgia and one surprising act of pure malice. Ravenhill is deliberately restrained here, not giving away too much, but allowing droplets of information to emerge that the audience can combine to form a picture of their lives, of relationships soured by years of recrimination. This is a snapshot of what feel like credibly larger lives, asking whether a single incident can and should shape our entire opinion of them; is what we see of these people on stage all that they are, boiled down to one mistake.

For a while at the start Edward does not appear, noted to be upstairs writing a report in his daughter’s old bedroom now a study, so the audience is left to wonder whether it will be the accused teacher or the tardy headmaster who has promised an ‘offsite’ visit to the besieged family that will complete the trio of characters. When Alan Armstrong’s Edward eventually emerges, he is entirely perplexed by and dismissive of the maelstrom around him. A career educator, Edward has only ever followed the rules prescribed at the time and Armstrong shows a man who believes his actions were never cruel or abusive, that he viewed caning as one of many acts of discipline chosen in response to extreme behaviour, something he delivered with no sense of enjoyment or even judgement at the time. Crucially, that it existed within a transparent correctional structure of which the pupils were aware, with every instance recorded and countersigned, and with the active permission of the child’s parents – a degree of adult collusion that muddies the waters.

This rationality and desire to leave the past alone, makes Edward such an interesting character, but it is the things that other people say about him that affects the subtleties of Armstrong’s performance. As the tables turn between them, his wife describes a temper and feeling of intimidation that we never see, while Anna goads him into behaviour that reveals a low-level hatred between them. While Armstrong’s Edward remains relatively composed throughout, despite what he perceives to be the unfairness of the protest, we see underneath that he is capable of the behaviour the women describe and perhaps his innate tendency to casual acts of violence is unknown to himself.

Providing an equally intriguing balance of violence and placidity is Nicola Walker’s Anna, whose appearance in the family home does more to unsettle her troubled parents than the mob beyond the walls. The mutual hostility creates an intriguing tension at the heart of the drama which prevent us from knowing whether Anna’s role is to provide professional assistance or to settle a domestic score. Why she chooses to return at this moment of conflict after years apart is ambiguous, with Walker suggesting both an opportunity to forward the Academy agenda and a desire for her own children to engage with their grandparents.

For the most part, like Edward, Anna is very much the rational adult, clearly stung by the unfeeling actions of her parents but offering ideas to manage and contain the explosive situation on their behalf. Yet we also hear of extreme acts of violence from other characters that Anna claims not to remember, and initially Walker makes us believe she has no memory of these events. As the story unfolds, her behaviour becomes notably more unstable, not manic, but Walker creates a subtle build-up of pressure that turns the scenario to her ultimate advantage, leaving us wondering whether the man with the cane who operated in full daylight is the real monster after all.

Maureen is the least complete character of the three, and while Maggie Steed imbues her with plenty of fear, loathing and a tendency to bitterness, she is given far less to do. In some ways, she could be the most interesting creation, a former teacher herself who The Cane implies may have stopped working to have a disappointing child, and who has taken her husband’s part in life, with almost no maternal instinct for her daughter. Clinging to her own idea of structure – her husband’s party on Friday, the impending visit of the Godot-like headmaster who never comes – as alliances reform themselves there seems to be more for Maureen to say about the choices she has made and the future ahead.

Chloe Lamford’s set is a spare and neglected room full of peeling wallpaper, broken staircases and vast emptiness where this family’s emotion for one another has long since departed. As the tension mounts the ceiling lowers to give the feeling of the walls closing in on Edward as the past and future eventually come together. Ravenhill’s play begins an interesting debate about how present the past ought to be and the extent to which individuals and nations need to seek forgiveness for acts conducted in an entirely different moral framework. The irony of students violently protesting outside a teacher’s door is not lost, the incident of caning, a form of personal violence, resulting in a modern display of public violence that is now acceptable. The rights of today become the wrongs of tomorrow so perhaps we need to be more careful about apologising for the past, in a few decades time it may be required of us as well.

The Cane is at the Royal Court until 2 January with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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NT Live Screening: The Madness of King George III

The Madness of King George III - NT Live

The notion of monarchs as divine beings may have died on the scaffold with Charles I but the idea of the Royal Family as somehow “other” persists. We seem strangely delighted to learn that they have the same human foibles and failings as the rest of us, that life in its different ways has been difficult for all of them, that however much wealth, power of privilege we believe they have, tough choices have had to be made, terrible events lived through and hard lessons learned. And while many of our monarchs are consigned to historical caricature, they too were once rounded and complex people balancing their constitutional responsibilities with a myriad of political, personality and family pressures that shaped their reign.

Interest in the real people beyond the symbolic role has been revived in programmes such as The Crown, exploring the effect of great events on our most famous family. War, acts of Parliament and social change are important, but the way to engage audiences with them is tell human stories about their effects. Shakespeare knew that only too well and his monarchical plays last because they set aside the great events (which predominantly happen off-stage) and focus instead on dysfunctional relationships, personal betrayals and the psychology of Kingship where the individual must or cannot subjugate their inner self to the role of sovereign, as Henry V tries and Richard II fails to do. This pull between the needs of the body politic and the physical body of the ruler is fruitful ground for drama.

The revival of Alan Bennett’s 1991 classic The Madness of King George III at Nottingham Playhouse couldn’t then be more relevant, a play that speaks to our interest in the people who govern us as well as concerns about fitness to rule, mental health and its treatment. Notably screened via NT Live last week, this is a first for the National in its attempt to represent regional productions among its London-centric output. While the process of screening plays is now a well-established practice, and one that is becoming increasingly ambitious in terms of the productions it films and the international venues to which they are transmitted, for the actor, the presence of cameras presents a number of different challenges that can affect everything from the blocking to the scale of the individual’s performance.

Adam Penford’s production came alive on screen as surely as it must have for the audiences able to witness it first-hand, and what you lose in the communal atmosphere and immediacy of being physically present among the actors waiting to entertain you, you gain in a proximity to the action denied even to the front row. The NT Live cameramen have become an extra character on stage, panning between the wide-angled shots that show the big set pieces and evolving stage management, and the intimate close-ups that so few get to experience which are more redolent of cinema. What we see on screen hundreds if not thousands of miles away is a distillation of the director’s ultimate vision, a broader canvas often skilfully boiled down to a series of shots chosen by the NT Live team that usually reflect the decisions taken independently about what views are the most appropriate at any given time. Crucially, as a cinema-goer rather than a member of the live theatre audience, what you see and when is chosen for you by someone not involved directly in the original production.

The result is nonetheless impressive and despite a slow start, the barrier between cinema audience and the Nottingham stage soon dissolves. The intimacy of Penford’s production comes to the fore, emphasising the savage treatments meted-out to the ailing King George in an era that still mixed Enlightenment thinking and scientific endeavour with medieval beliefs in leeching poisons from the body to restore balance. In close-up, those seem even more torturous, burning the man’s body with cups, letting his blood and forcing his digestive and excretory system in an attempt to remove the possession that grips him. Penford doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of these procedures, suggesting both the thin veneer of respectability that society operated under, stylish, mannered, held by the conventions of politeness, but still capable of outrageous barbarism to the physical body in the name of medicine.

While Dr Willis is a perceived saviour, guaranteeing a cure with alternative means and a more nuanced understanding of the human mind, his methods seem no less distasteful. Bennett gives him plenty of dialogue that references “breaking-in” like a horse or wild creature needing to be tamed rather than an anointed monarch. The drama of the King’s restraint at the end of the first half is powerfully achieved, a clear affront to body, dignity and majesty that still shocks, and while Zadok the Priest is remarkably overused, it has a cinematic impact that signals a notable change of tone at the this point in the story.

Of course, this is also a political play about the thinly balanced majority of a governing party that is all to resonant in every age, and not least our present circumstances. What comes across so effectively in the NT Live screening is how disposable the person of the monarch really has been, susceptible to political tides and corrupt motives regardless of their status. The subplot involving the Prince of Wales and his Westminster ally Charles James Fox essentially attempting to bring down the existing regime is not a particularly subtle one with the potential for plenty of panto villainy – which is indeed how Nicholas Hytner’s arguably definitive 1995 film portrayed them, a pair of grotesques making a selfish play for power.

This production is a tad softer, and while the disruptive effects of “the fat one” and his co-conspirators is still played as a dastardly plot with little but self-aggrandisement at its heart, the role of the King and incumbent Prime Minister, Mr Pitt, are by no means heroic. Penford draws attention to how the deep divide between father and son ripples through this constitutional crisis to disastrous effect and with fault on both sides. Likewise, the dour Pitt is less a leader than a reed blowing in the wind, resting on past glories and unable to encourage the unification of party so desperately needed – sound familiar?

One of the advantages of an NT Live screening like this one, with its close-ups and focus on individual reaction, is to show just how personal the political was in this era, how significantly the day-to-day business of government is affected by the personality and sanguinity of the monarch. Even in an era before public enfranchisement, the importance of charismatic statesmanship in the building of alliances between party members and across the governing aristocracy was vital, a little bonhomie could go a very long way. As much as The Madness of King George III is a story about the cruel effects of poorly understood medical procedure on the body of the sovereign, this NT Live showing in conjunction with Penford’s directorial approach suggests that any kind of physical or constitutional weakness creates an opportunity for others to fill the void in a ruthless and unsympathetic grab for power. Kings may need time to recover but politics waits for no man.

The fact Mark Gatiss shines in the title role should be of little surprise and while his other stage performances have been more obviously comic, there is a far greater tragicomic balance in King George that builds on the character-roles he has played on television While ethical questions persist about the portrayal of mental health and changing expectations since Bennett penned the play in the early 1990s, Gatiss finds just the right balance between the regal leader commanding court and country with practised ease and the slow dissolution of mind that undoes the King’s grasp of himself over time. Crucially, George retains his knowledge of people and place, able to name everyone in his presence but cannot control his reaction or the speed with which brain and speech connect, which Gatiss shows with distinction.

Here, the presence of cameras is Gatiss’s ally, allowing him to display the subtle expressions and flickers of thought that you would never see from the back of the stalls. Already a consummate performer on TV and film, Gatiss shows how to pitch a performance simultaneously to the top of the balcony and to the intimate cinema audience, merging the big gestures of outrage and anger with the psychological effects of his condition and medical torture that create plenty of pathos. His attempts to regain control and frustration with himself are extremely sympathetic, while the humbleness that develops alongside his recovery becomes very moving as George learns that entitlement means nothing without kindness. The shock of his own fragility and the reconciliation process that should make him a more human monarch mark this as easily Gatiss’s best performance.

Equally skilled in managing stage and screen acting is the ever-wonderful Adrian Scarborough as the blunt Dr Willis. Such a superb character actor, the production actively steps-up a notch with his arrival towards the end of Act One with his no-nonsense approach that seems as controversial as it was effective. There is something independent in Scarborough’s portrayal that marks the doctor as quite a different influence from the court and political factions, refusing to be swayed by anything but his own belief in the science of his method, and a certainty of mind that borders on arrogance.

Yet, the audience remains largely on his side, almost preferring his advocacy of restraint and control to the horribly brutal leeching and burning caused by his fellow doctors. Scarborough’s Willis never asks to be liked but remains certain that he will cure the King, giving enough command that we believe him. Yet his own psychological state is not for discussion, so Scarborough ensures that the man we see is only a scientist, with everything else deliberately closed-off, even from the intrusive glare of the NT Live camera.

The surrounding cast have a more mixed experience with the cameras; Debra Gillett brings spousal affection to the role of Queen Charlotte, exasperated by her husband’s failing state and exerting a maternal protection that is quite affecting. Nicholas Bishop’s emotionless Pitt displays plenty of world-weary resignation as he desperately clings to power, but Amanda Hadingue in the dual role of court doctor Sir Lucas Pepys and Charles James Fox, along with Stephanie Jacob as Sir George Baker and Sheridan are a little stagey up-close, their comic buffoonery playing to the bigger audience in the room rather than the physical proximity of the cinema screen.

With plenty of enthusiastic reviews and the honour of an NT Live showing, a West End transfer for this Nottingham Playhouse Production shouldn’t be ruled out, capitalising as it does on our ongoing interest in humanising the Royal Family. With a change of monarch relatively close at hand, any new sovereign is something of an unknown quantity which, even within the limited powers they now hold, has consequences right across government. The story of George III and his son tells that whatever you think of monarchy as an institution, an established but indisposed king might be preferable to a louche one – better the devil you know!

The Madness of King George has now concluded its run at the Nottingham Playhouse, but details of NT Live Encore screenings throughout December are available on the website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Switzerland – The Ambassadors Theatre

Switzerland - Theatre Royal Bath

On St Martin’s Lane shows related to two of the twentieth-century’s greatest crime writers are currently playing side by side. Both women who navigated a male-dominated literary world and experienced the political, economic and social fluctuations of the post-war era that changed their writing. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is in its 65th year making it the longest-running play in the West End by some way, endlessly attracting audiences entranced by her ability to create engaging and innovative scenarios with character-driven mysteries. Next door at the Ambassadors, Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland arrives in the West End for the first time, putting Patricia Highsmith in the spotlight with an intriguing duologue about the nature of the authorial voice.

Christie and Highsmith like Conan Doyle before them are authors arguably eclipsed by their greatest creations, works of fiction so tangible they have taken-on a life and momentum of their own. Hercule Poirot has been frequently reinvented on screen and while David Suchet’s interpretation seemed definitive it hasn’t stopped a new Kenneth Branagh film franchise, or an impending BBC adaption of The ABC Murders scheduled for Christmas with John Malkovich as the illustrious detective. Likewise, there is a Sherlock Holmes for all seasons and whether you want a classically imperious Basil Rathbone, an intimidating Jeremy Brett or the social awkwardness of Benedict Cumberbatch these are characters like James Bond and even Harry Potter that have escaped the confines of their author’s imagination and entered the collective consciousness, public property obscuring their creator’s purpose and sometimes even their wishes.

These characters can be a burden as much as they are a boon to their author who after years of being tied to the same kind of writing try unsuccessfully to break free. Poirot and Holmes were both killed-off before Conan Doyle was forced to relent and brought the latter back, while Poirot has a second life in Sophie Hannah’s new novels endorsed by the Christie estate. Switzerland is the story of Patricia Highsmith’s struggle with her own famous creation, the chancer and sociopath Tom Ripley who consumed and dominated a career of voracious and variable productivity. As a representative from her American publishing house is dispatched to convince the irascible Highsmith to pen one final Ripley novel, the writer is torn between the unwelcome expectation to deliver and fascination with revisiting a character that has always inspired her creativity.

In Lucy Bailey’s wonderfully full production, transferring from the Theatre Royal Bath, the emphasis is firmly on the process of invention and the great cost to the writer in trying to inhabit the world of the novel. Highsmith’s reluctance seems to stem from both a concern that she has lost the ability to write Ripley as powerfully as she once did, as well as fearing the effect of re-entering the mind of a character that thrills her. Switzerland is a taut piece of drama that uses Highsmith’s circumstances by the mid 1990s, living in self-imposed exile from the United States in a famously neutral country with limited human contact and a need for drink and cigarettes, to consider the entire dedication of self needed to become a truly great writer.

Genius is often partnered with arrogance, unpleasantness and a desire to flout social norms, and here Highsmith displays a disregard for any form of social structure or rules that directly reflect the character she creates, a charming young man who does the same but with murderous and self-aggrandising outcomes. Who is the most dangerous person in this scenario, the fictional creation or the mind that created it? This is a dominated theme in Murray-Smith’s piece, and something that Bailey seizes upon to play with tone and the boundary between author and character.

Driven by the arrival of Edward Ridgeway, Bailey utilises Switzerland’s three “chapters” to first show us the famous Highsmith in command of a life she is only prepared to live on her own terms and refusing to be flattered by the adoring young man who arrives at her door. In the middle section, we feel the power shift as Highsmith and Edward find a common ground, her respect growing as his fear of her diminishes, allowing him to show his erudition and engage in a lively debate about the literary lifestyle. The final act should not be spoiled, but Bailey’s experience of staging crime drama including the impressive Witness for the Prosecution is brought to bear in a subtly developing tension that has the quality of a Highsmith novel spilled over into her real life, making a crucial point about the indivisibility of the author from their fiction.

Running for 95-minutes without an interval, visually very little changes in William Dudley’s set so, like the perfect crime, all the elements must be there from the start. Highsmith has been given a fully furnished flat full of books and a space for writing, but it is the secondary details that become the focus. Every wall has a collection of weapons on display which, reflecting the text in which the central pair debate the most powerful guns to commit a murder, suggests more than a hobby, rather a collective obsession for the writer who thinks society gets too het-up about killing. The exterior world of snowy mountain ranges is also visible through the flat, and, while this initially feels like a calm retreat, it soon morphs into isolation and exposure, helping to wordlessly shift the atmosphere to something more sinister as the relationship between Highsmith and Ridgeway changes gear.

A work not driven by plot but almost entirely by character can be hard to sustain, even more so with only two actors who spend a lot of time chewing-over ideas, making this a very talky play focused on debate and engagement of theory more than storyline, so it is credit to Bailey and her performers that they hold the attention throughout, utilising every word to inform our understanding of character, tone and context.

As Highsmith, Phyllis Logan is a dominant presence, lone and comfortable in the room she has so carefully constructed to hide from the world. Throughout, the audience is never quite sure how seriously to take her assertions of independence, her hatred of the New York publishing scene and the racial prejudice she occasionally exhibits. Ridgeway accuses her of posing, of espousing views that she doesn’t believe for effect, so Logan uses the performance to quite skilfully make us wonder whether this is a writer who assumes her characters’ traits in lieu of her own, and if “Patricia Highsmith” is just one of many personas she adopts.

Murray-Smith also has much to say about the lifestyle of the writer, the single-mindedness and knowledge of their own rhythms that sets them apart. Logan uses this to suggest a touch of the Hemingways, an author almost on the run from reality, ever aware that her lifestyle and predilections cannot find peace in ordinary society. There is a huge vulnerability that underlies Logan’s characterisation, helping the audience to see through the hard drinking and aggressive manner to something more fragile, a fear of being inconsequential that makes so much sense of Highsmith’s behaviour. Logan’s trick is to keep us guessing on how that will eventually manifest itself – breakdown or murder?

The combative relationship the novelist develops with Edward Ridgeway is central to Switzerland, challenging the pair to an interminable battle in which the stakes only ever seem to get higher. Calum Findlay’s growing confidence is well charted, balancing a nervous excitement at meeting an idol with strong desire to prove his intellectual worth on all her favourite subjects from weaponry to books and the New York landscape. Findlay’s performance takes Ridgeway in the opposite direction to Logan’s Highsmith and while time reveals her essential fragility, it shows his inner steel, hiding beneath a veneer of polite awe.

Any fans of crime fiction will know never to trust a stranger who turns up unexpectedly, but Findlay’s approach is to be entirely disarming, a chastened young man in cosy jumpers, a literary nerd eager to please his celebrated host. Yet Ridgeway’s wardrobe evolves as his true character comes to light, and Findlay grasps the darker moments in which the pair consider a new Ripley plot to suggest deeper waters beneath the surface. Almost from the start Ridgeway is a collection of conundrums and contradictions, a sweet boy with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Highsmith’s back catalogue, a harmless fan who helps to concoct a dastardly murder plot for the new Ripley that trips too easily off the tongue, as though considered long ago.

Bailey has firm control of the ebb and flow of power as the production unfolds, retaining a degree of mystery and danger, a tipping point that could just as easily be dismissed as paranoia or could develop into something much darker. Switzerland is a fine tribute to a writer of psychological fiction whose own life was full of drama and incident. Side-by-side with Agatha Christie on St Martin’s Lane feels appropriate for two authors who entirely reshaped the crime novel and deserve to be remembered with as much enthusiasm as the characters who eclipsed them.

Switzerland is at The Ambassadors Theatre until 5 January and tickets start at £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.    


Measure for Measure – Donmar Warehouse

Measure for Measure - Donmar Warehouse

As Josie Rourke enters her final months as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, schemes like Barclays Front Row and now Klaxon offering low-priced tickets to often sold-out shows, along with a focus on female-led theatre will be her legacy. Fitting then that part of her directorial swansong should be an inspired and experimental take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In a year of revelations about the abuse of power and sexual misconduct, the timing couldn’t be better for this intriguing tale of blackmail, morality and duty.

Gender-blind casting has becoming fairly standard in recent years, at the most basic level giving female actors the chance to play some of drama’s greatest roles, while also offering alternative perspectives on familiar scenarios. But one thing you never see is the same character simultaneously from the male and female perspective, so while a female Henry V might be intriguing, audiences cannot compare this instantly with an equivalent male performance and must wait until some other production comes along. Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure changes all that.

On the same night, either side of the interval, the roles of Angelo and Isabella are shared by Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell, while the production also divides its time between the early seventeenth century and 2018. There were various possibilities for this approach – the actors could play the roles on alternate nights as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller did with Frankenstein, or the swap could simply happen half way through the play. Instead, O’Rourke plumps for the most unusual option, slashing the text to a core 90 minutes and playing it through twice, that is exactly the same text once with Lowden as Angelo and Atwell as Isabella, and after the interval, playing it all again with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines (but called Isabella) and Lowden performing as Isabella (but called Angelo). It’s a risky strategy with a show that ultimate clocks in at around three hours, but it’s a daring endeavour that is richly rewarding.

The Duke of Vienna decides to take a holiday and leave his reluctant friend Angelo in charge, making him the city’s leading judge. A pure and moral region, Claudio is accused of fornication and the sober Angelo sentences him to death. Encouraged to plead for his life, Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice nun, duly visits Angelo who is instantly captivated by her, offering to spare her brother’s life in return for her virginity. Forced to choose between her body and her soul, can Angelo’s terrible power be bested?

The easy abuse of power and how it changes people’s behaviour is a core theme for Shakespeare, throwing the individual’s moral code into flux. Most often for murderous or greedy ends, characters pursue power to alter their own status, to win a higher position in government as happens in Hamlet and Macbeth or to jealously disrupt the purer life of someone else as in Othello. In Measure for Measure, power is wielded purely for sexual purposes, Angelo’s conquest of Isabella won’t later affect the materiality of his circumstances in any way, he propositions her as a temporary distraction, more an exercise in ego than a strategy for higher gain – themes that will resonant strongly with the events of the last year.

All of this comes across really strongly in the first half of the Donmar’s production, largely divested of its subplots, the audience is asked to focus sharply on the central theme of moral and bodily corruption in a show that asks big questions about trading one for the other. But Rourke ensures it’s not an open and shut case, she wants us to consider the opposing positions of Angelo and Isabella, to ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation and to think about the ways in which morality has changed in 400 years. Is Isabella a paragon, a saintly figure to be admired, or is her refusal to succumb to Angelo’s desires, and thereby assure her brother’s death, a cruel and stubborn act?

In this first section, the sympathies deliberately sway. Jack Lowden’s Angelo is an interesting proposition, a man seemingly driven by right and duty, applying the law as it stands but without compassion or clemency. His first encounter with Isabella clearly ignites a rapid and unexpected passion that he is unused to experiencing, and Lowden makes us believe he genuinely falls for her – it appears to mean far more to him than just having the upper hand.

But Lowden never lets us forget that how Angelo translates that emotion is monstrous, however genuine his feeling for Isabella, the scene in which he makes his intentions clear is deeply uncomfortable. As he looms in on her, riven with lust, she comprehends his purpose exactly, and Atwell is superb in relaying the powerlessness and fear that Isabella feels in that moment, frozen and shaking with tears that becomes a striking reminder that Angelo’s unrequited love for her can never excuse his invasive manipulation of her body and mind.

As the story is resolved the production flashes forward to 2018 and replays the first scene again, this time with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines but named as Isabella. After the interval, the play resumes from the condemnation of Claudio, and Atwell’s approach is slightly different to Lowden’s – although both are equally valid and fascinating creations. She makes the character more beguiling, more openly lustful and confident, while no less deceptively calculating. This Isabella has greater self-assurance than the equivalent Angelo in Act One, who seemed a cold man remote from the world and almost awoken by his passion. Instead, Atwell plays her as a sharp-minded woman seizing on a tasty opportunity that suddenly presents itself, worldly and entitled.

Her scenes with Lowden now are quite different, without the physical height and strength to overcome him, she manoeuvres him into position and waits to pounce. Openly admiring him, Atwell has a way of tilting her head to peer at Angelo (reading as Isabella), emphasising her social if not muscular dominance over him. Instead of the devout virgin of 1604, Lowden gives us a former bad boy who has found redemption at a Christian retreat and Isabella’s pursuit of him tests his resolve – although, it is more awkward than uncomfortable to watch him extricate himself from the proposition scene, perhaps because he seems more acquainted with the world and better able to handle himself than the trapped young woman of the original.

It may seem a chore to watch the same show through twice and you do need a bit of resolve to stick with it, but the outcome is worth the investment. There are two very interesting things happening in this finely honed and balanced production; first one way to read the approach is that the Isabella and Angelo of the second half are the direct consequence of the Isabella and Angelo of the first. Forget the fact they swap lines and imagine what actually happened to the characters at the end of Shakespeare’s original play, who did they become in the future?

Here Rourke asks us to consider, that although Isabella was young, innocent and seemingly incorruptible in terms of her chastity, did having the power of life and death over another man (even for the right reasons) ultimately corrupt her? Did close exposure to that male world of politics and power create a future scenario in which the one-time victim becomes the perpetrator? Atwell certainly hints that the fiery certainty of Isabella in Act One could be the same woman in Act Two only older and more experienced. Her righteousness after the interval seems to suggest the dying embers of an original morality now corrupted by authority.

Likewise, it is entirely conceivable that the dastardly Angelo has spent the intervening years seeking atonement for his sins, arriving at the retreat as a form of therapy to correct his poor behaviour. Like Atwell, Lowden makes this interpretation entirely credible drawing on his portrait of initial sobriety as Act One Angelo to inform and make sense of his Act Two desire to seek religious penance for his earlier behaviour. His reaction to Isabella’s proposition is then deepened by the idea that he now understands the damaging effect of his original behaviour, hence the determination not to succumb. So the question really becomes – are Angelo and Isabella essentially two sides of the same coin, an eternal loop of corruption and reclamation?

Secondly, are we also being asked to question our own judgement about the differences between the two scenarios? Morally they are inexcusably the same, a more powerful individual manipulating a weaker one is unquestionably wrong, but watching it, the production is also testing our own conscience and whether we feel that a gender-swapped twenty-first century Isabella propositioning Angelo is less troubling that the seventeenth-century original. Does society still innately believe that a woman, lacking in physical strength, cannot cajole a man into sex in the same way? Part of that is in the equivalent performances in which Lowden’s cold Angelo is more repellent than Atwell’s slightly coquettish and personable Isabella, but this Measure for Measure asks tough questions – are we really as liberal as we’d like to think? Using power to manipulate another person should be the same regardless of gender but it is intriguing how the alternative perspective of the second half plays with our prejudices on this issue.

Cynically, a double dose of Measure for Measure shouldn’t work, but this re-gendered combination is a gamble that pays off, sending you home with plenty to think about for days afterwards. Peter McKintosh’s simple set, combined with Howard Harrison’s interesting lighting design easily evokes two eras, allowing the power of the lower-lit traditional section to speak for itself uncluttered by scenery, while adding a livelier feel for 2018. The overall concept adds some knowing touches to the modern era with conversations transposed to phone calls and the local prostitutes given an Eastern European background.

Among the supporting cast, Nicholas Burns adds a creepy touch as the helpful undercover Duke with an agenda of his own. His pursuit of Isabella is as disturbing as Angelo’s showing that predators may come disguised as white knights, while Burns becomes more physical in his attempt to seduce Angelo in 2018 which contrasts well with Isabella’s more implicit approach. Matt Bardock is equally notable as the rascally Lucio, while Sule Rimi gives the imprisoned Claudio plenty of injured resentment at his sister / brother’s refusal to help.

As Josie Rourke steps down from the Donmar, this show is one to remember for all the right reasons. In a year of very strong Shakespeare interpretations – Julius Caesar, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra especially – this Measure for Measure has taken the biggest gamble of them all and won. With two terrific performers in Atwell and Lowden each giving two absorbing performances, it is an evening that opens your eyes to how differently Shakespeare’s text can be interpreted and how changing gender can give theatre an added political power.

Measure for Measure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 November. Tickets are sold-out but extra seats will available via Klaxon every Monday and day seats at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Sketching – Wilton’s Music Hall

Sketching - Wilton's Music Hall

The anthology series has had a renaissance on television with shows like Black Mirror and Inside No 9 proving that contained storytelling can be dramatically satisfying and compulsive viewing. In theatre it is far less common, although Jamie Lloyd’s successful and energised Pinter at the Pinter season is taking a compendium approach to presenting multiple one act plays and monologues across successive evenings. James Graham’s new show Sketching, which has its press night at Wilton’s Music Hall tomorrow, attempts a purer form of anthology, blending stories from eight competition winners to co-create a patchwork of London life.

Graham ran an open search for writers, specifically targeting under-represented voices from around the UK to work with him on a multi-perspective show that uses Sketches by Boz – one of Charles Dickens’s earliest works – as its inspiration. Sketching is a theatrical experiment designed to weave together the individual stories of different London traditions, problems and people to celebrate the diversity and history of our capital, while commenting on a sense of place and identity for those drawn to its flame.

Dickens’s substantial tome is an indispensable guide to nineteenth-century London, and while his various observations and creations exist largely in isolation, together Dickens creates a broad sense of the bustle and scale of the city while delving deeply into the quirky co-existence of all kinds of life within its streets, taking the reader from the humorous to the ponderous and despondent within a few pages. More recently novelists including John Lanchester in Capital and Sebastian Faulks in A Week in December have utilised the anthology approach but deliberately drawn the strands together to create a narrative drive that allows separate characters to cross paths in significant ways. Sketching falls somewhere between the two.

Much has been made of the “writers’ room” approach that Sketching has adopted from television where large multi-episode dramas and soaps use a team of writers to essentially churn out plenty of storylines while collectively retaining an eye for consistencies of character and place. Here, competition winners Aaron Douglas, Adam Hughes, Alan Gordon, Chloe Mi Lin Ewart, Ella Langley, Himanshu Ojha, Naomi Westerman and Sumerah Srivastav have worked alongside Graham to produce the 12 attributable stories listed in the programme.

In many ways Sketching is a vast undertaking, attempting to marry nine individual voices in a single two-hour show, created in less than 12 weeks, with the group only meeting for the first time at the launch event in early July. Perhaps expectedly with relatively little time to write, hone, cast and rehearse, the quality of the overall piece is rather variable and while some stories are consistently tied together, others float loosely around the edge of a show that hasn’t quite decided if it wants to be a series of exploratory “sketches” or a fully integrated drama. Graham constructs a play better than almost anyone, and Sketching’s episodic frame feels like the right approach, scattering scenes from several of the core strands across the production to drive the drama. His own story ‘Peter Piper has a Plan’ is the backbone of the show, uniting some of the disparate elements while adding a small sense of jeopardy to proceedings.

Newly released from prison, Peter Piper is the criminal mastermind behind a dastardly plan to steal the internet and plunge the city into chaos. Travelling around London, Piper incites a number of crucial strikes that lead to his ultimate, and rather surprising, objective. Its initial Tower of London location is reminiscent of Moriarty’s equally crazed bid for power in season two of Sherlock, yet, squeezed for time, the consequences rather fizzle out. Graham’s solid narrative arc allows Peter to interact with a number of other stories and London traditions, which in Samuel James’s sinister performance creates some genuine audience investment. Given more time, this has the potential to be a fascinating study of the multivariant effects of destruction that Peter single-handedly manufactures.

Of the stories attributed to the Writers’ Room, only four have an identifiable stake in show. The strongest comes from Alan Gordon who makes his professional debut with ‘The Emancipation of Shona Bell-e’ about a Scottish Drag Queen who finds herself trapped in a London flat with Kevin who refuses to go outside. Living solely through her fans on the internet, the tension rises between them as cabin fever sets in. It doesn’t connect to the main Peter Piper story, but with another notable and exuberant performance from Samuel James as Shona, supported by Sean Michael Verey’s quietly troubled Kevin, this sensitive piece has much to say about the loneliness of London and the pressure to hide your true self to fit in.

But time prevents a few of the stories from reaching their full potential. Himanshu Ojha’s ‘The Hand of Hozan’ is another pillar of the show with an intriguing twist as a probationary police officer works with a sewage worker to uncover the origins of a mysterious severed hand, using flashbacks to replay the significant moments of Hozan’s life.  Sumerah Srivastav’s ‘Mo’s Second Hand Shop’ has a very different central character with lots of possibilities but is so briefly shown in the first half that the major reveal in Act Two feels too sudden and underdeveloped, despite an eleventh hour tie-in with Ojha’s story.

Naomi Westerman’s ‘The Conceptual Artist’ concerns a homeless lesbian couple who take over an empty mansion in Kensington only for one of them to be mistaken for an artist. Westerman comments on the vapid nature of fame, greed and the nonsense of London housing but tonally feels divorced from the rest of the show. A promising sequence about a Billingsgate fishmonger (Samuel James again) who aptly comments that the financial district is built on invisible stock unlike his business that has tangible products to sell has considerable scope for development, with a rather pointed statement to make about the nature and skewed importance of the banking industry to London’s sustainability. Yet the remaining Writers’ Room pieces are difficult to identify.

It’s notable, and even curious, that of the 12 stories listed in the programme four of the longest pieces that connect the show are by Graham, and it’s not at all clear if this is intentional. Alongside the central Peter Piper strand, Graham also contributes ‘The Widow and the Songbird’ about a rare nightingale encounter which has the potential to be quite poignant, ‘A Rebellion in Theatreland’ focusing on mutinous stage door keepers which deserves expansion, and the weak ‘Katie and Tom Try to Move On’, an over-wordy recurring story which, despite a clever ending, fails to convince as a long-parted couple agonise over their feelings for one another, poorly performed by Verey and Sophie Wu. As a test case for collective approaches to theatre writing that create opportunity for diversity Sketching is clearly an important step forward, and while many of the stories are interesting, at times the show feels as though it has been patched-up or rescued by its senior writer.

Sketching is a solid evening, but lacking polish it never quite moves beyond a series of possibilities. It entertains in part, and genuinely engages in others, yet its multi-writer format pulls its structure in different directions; on the one hand it actively overlaps narratives and characters to create a coherent drama but also takes the Dicken’s approach with several sketches that exist in isolation, making for a slightly unsatisfactory and inconsistent whole. That variation extends to the show’s presentation as narrators actively link passages together, speaking directly to the audience, while alternatively scenes and Dicken’s quotes bleed into one another without any external commentary. It’s never clear if we are being guided to particular experiences of London to make a specific point, or whether snatches of life are presented as they exist for the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Ellan Parry’s simple design allows the actors to swiftly merge into dozens of characters with just a change of hat or coat, and the minimal approach to staging helps us to conjure a variety of locations in an instant. Yet Parry has added a high rigged table to connect the upper and lower parts of the Wilton stage. Much of the action takes place on this raised and titled platform that gives a good view from the circle but results in neck ache for the front stalls – what this odd structure is meant to represent or facilitate is less clear. Thankfully, Daniel Denton’s beautiful video projections reinforce the title with a series of black and white sketches inspired by mid-century French styles, providing a simple but meaningful backdrop of locations, maps and animation that add a touch of magic to the overall effect.

Sketching is certainly an interesting test case and the fact it exists at all is probably more important than its content. Along with Graham’s passionate advocation of arts education and desire to offer the same mentoring support he received as a young writer, whether Sketching is a good play is secondary to its importance as a political statement about access for new and diverse voices. There are some really strong ideas here and a lot of talent among the Writers’ Room but space to develop is lacking in a show that needs to include too much. The consequence of running a competition means each ‘winner’ must be heard and the weaker ideas cannot be jettisoned to create space for the stronger to thrive.

That’s not to say that collective approaches to theatre writing cannot be successful, and indeed elements of Sketching prove they can be, but the overall outcome needs to be more streamlined, limiting the focus to five or six stronger stories co-written by the group, Alternatively an entirely anthological approach could work with a tighter theme; London is a big sprawling city heaving with stories, but the breadth of the responses to that makes it harder to weave into a single, consistent and meaningful evening of theatre.

Sketching is very much a work in progress, both in the career development of the collective writers as a stepping stone to the demands and expectations of professional theatre, and in the construction and refinement of new modes of creating. Given more time and focus, a Writers’ Room model would be an interesting one to replicate, changing the nature of individualist theatre writing. Sketching is a show that doesn’t feel quite ready for its audience, but it is an important marker for the sector, a chance to think more broadly and even radically about routes to access, opportunity and perspective that can open the door to new voices.

Sketching is at Wilton’s Music Hall until 28 October with tickets from £9-£33. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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