Tag Archives: Play

The Lehman Trilogy – National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy - National Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Noel Coward Theatre

Lieutenant of Inishmore - Noel Coward Theatre

2018 is becoming quite the year for Martin McDonagh; in January his last major play Hangmen opened in New York taking most of its original London cast, then in late February the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri won two Oscars, and in October his latest play A Very Very Dark Matter starring Jim Broadbent about Hans Christian Andersen heralds the Bridge Theatre’s autumn season. In the meantime, a beautifully pitched revival of McDonagh’s 2001 play The Lieutenant of Inishmore about a cat-loving terrorist in1990s Ireland is now playing at the Noel Coward Theatre and guaranteed to draw audiences with star Aidan Turner in the leading role.

With a exceptional version of Translations running at the National Theatre, and more Friel to come at the Donmar later this month with their revival of Aristocrats, London is enjoying a mini-Irish season. Across these plays, there is an examination of the changing relations between our two countries, as well as open-ended questions about nationality and language that have shaped both nations over hundreds of years. With Brexit drawing focus once again to the Northern Ireland boarder, this timely combination of plays have concurrent themes about identity formation, conflict and the future development of two countries whose history is inextricable entangled.

McDonagh has always been very astute in capturing the contrasting and multifaceted nature of the individual, delighting in the unexpected foibles and ridiculousness that bring humanity to some of his darkest creations. Often focused on the perpetrators of extreme violence, many of these characters are given an unexpected softer side, so whether its Brendan Gleeson’s hired assassin with a passion for the medieval architecture of Bruges, a former state executioner running a local pub or a cat-loving anarchist, extreme and almost surreal though it can be, within McDonagh’s work there is always a kernel of truth about human behaviour that lurks beneath the surface. However violent their career choices, there is always pride, attachments and fallibility that make them more rounded.

This also serves to emphasise the fate of the many innocents who get caught in the cross-fire, those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, completely outside of the central plot and suffer as a result – be it children, neighbouring cats or racist dwarves. McDonagh’s scenarios have a warped moral dimension to them, ensuring that the bad people tend to pay for their crimes in outrageously violent ways, retaining a reasonably straightforward perspective on good and evil, punishment and justice.

As a very black comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore on the surface is essentially a tale of in-fighting between various subsets of a terrorist organisation, a disagreement about the etiquette and degrees of violence to be employed in pursuit of their cause. But the unspoken context here is the fraught aftermath of a colonial relationship between Britain and Ireland that has driven this group of men to seek destructive and murderous means to achieve liberty for the North. McDonagh takes a tongue-in-cheek approach but as each hilarious scene builds to a beautifully pitched comic conclusion, the contextual reality of this era, of the fragility of political peace processes, of generations of people driven to extremist behaviour remains striking.

Set on the Island of Inishmore off the coast of Ireland, teenager Davey delivers the corpse of Donny’s black cat which he found in the road with his head staved in. Unfortunately for Davey, the cat – Wee Thomas – really belongs to Donny’s son Padraic, a crazy and violent terrorist working for the INLA, who instantly breaks off the torture of a drug dealer to rush home to see the cat he adores. Teaming-up with Davey’s sister Mairead who enjoys shooting the eyes out of cattle and pursued by an assassination-squad of INLA colleagues, Padraic’s fury is enflamed by meagre attempts to substitute his beloved moggy for another. But, who really killed Wee Thomas and will anyone live to tell the tale?

There is a huge amount of technical skill involved in creating a show like this, one which mixes an implied menace with an almost cartoon-violence that is deliberately unrealistic enough to prevent the violence overwhelming the humour. There is a kind of joy in the build-up to some of the more extreme aspects of the show, which become darker as the plot unfolds, and Christopher Oram has done an impressive job with some slightly heightened but still ghastly-looking props, particularly in the glorious finale.

The penultimate scene too runs beautifully but is full of carefully timed stage-craft that is considerably more complicated than they make it look. It’s a high-stakes scene, probably the most fraught of the play as all the plot elements come together in a Tarantino-style face-off between the various characters. It’s rare to see something like this on stage because it’s so difficult to accomplish in real-time, but Oram’s team has delivered a series of splatters and explosions that can be triggered at exactly the right moment, and even more importantly, create just the right effect, at the right angle on the set and characters – a not insubstantial achievement.

Tone is equally hard to manage in a show like this, and it can be extremely difficult to make it just black enough without becoming too grim, while keeping the lighter stuff in check so that it doesn’t become too farcical – McDonagh wants you to see a touch of reality in his characters, to believe them capable of their extreme actions, but at the same time to chortle at their ludicrous sensitivities and grasp of morality. Director Michael Grandage has got this exactly right, allowing the story to build in the early scenes, enjoying the sillier moments, while still creating sufficient investment in the characters as we build to the more shocking plot devices.

At less than two hours with an unnecessary and distracting interval, the play has only nine scenes across which a full and engaging plot is presented and concluded. Grandage manages the transitions using the main stage for Donny’s farmhouse, and locating other scenes in front of a curtain, a papier mache and paint affair fashioned to look like the Island of Inishmore from the air. This all works very nicely, maintaining the flow while separating between the moments where characters are in transit from their more rooted and identifiable existence in Donny’s home. It is also hilarious, sometimes overt and silly, while at other times more subtle, with throw-away references or character-traits that add extra layers for those who want to see them.

With the stars of long-running and much-loved TV dramas, it’s (shamefully) all too easy to forget their range of skills and the diversity of their work elsewhere. As Ross Poldark, Aidan Turner became an overnight sensation which four series on shows no signs of abating, but the character offers only a limited outlet for his acting portfolio. With hints that the next season may be the last, this seems like an appropriate time for Turner’s return to the stage, to start thinking about life beyond the tricorn hats and slow-motion horse-riding, and to remind the acting world that he has plenty more to offer. His role in the superb BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None offered a charged and dangerous presence, while here in The Lieutenant of Inishmore he comprehensively proves he also has a talent for comedy.

As Padraic, Turner switches in an instant from violent fiend to cat-loving softie, frequently breaking down into tears even at the thought of any harm befalling his precious puss. His first appearance sets-up the rest of the show, as Padraic tortures a drug dealer suspended upside down from the ceiling, Turner elicits just the right balance of silliness in McDonagh’s text, landing a great line about selling drugs to Protestants and, when he hears of Wee Thomas’s illness, the slightly squeaky and tremulous way he asks to speak to his cat on the phone has the audience in stitches.

Turner’s Padraic is definitely a man with no regard for human life, happy to sacrifice his dad and neighbours for the cause, a man with a proclivity for blowing-up chip shops and an anarchic temper. Turner continually balances a growing menace with the heightened nature of the characterisations and scenario to emphasise the ridiculousness of Padraic’s extremes of hate and love (for cats). A final memory of Padraic winsomely stroking a dead cat while referencing 90s TV show The House of Eliot is an image that will stay with you. Turner is genuinely very funny with a shrewd comic timing and clearly enjoys the whole thing tremendously

Padraic’s dad, played by Denis Conway is wonderfully dry, offering an understated but sharp portrayal of man fearing the wrath of his crazy son but with no more interest in anyone’s life but his own. He plays the straight man in a hilarious double act with Chris Walley’s Davey, as the pair embroil themselves in a number of enjoyably daft schemes to hide Wee Thomas’s death from Padraic. Making his stage debut, Walley is given a terrible curly mullet, of which Davey is inordinately proud, and the actor holds his own very nicely in an impressive ensemble.

The only woman in the story, Charlie Murphy’s Mairead is a cold ruthless attacker of cow’s eyes which she shoots out for practice. A dedicated revolutionary, far braver than anyone else in the show, and proud of her skills as a crack shot from a decent distance, 16-year old Mairead is desperate to join the INLA and has an eye for her hero Padraic. Murphy brings a soldier’s composure to the role of the psychotic youngster with a casual approach to life and death, a cool logic that is both comical and terrifying. You’d never want to cross her but in a world of gun-toting men you also slightly root for her.

With McDonagh and Turner’s names attached to the project, there’ll be no concerns about selling tickets so critical support becomes less necessary, but with press night on Wednesday they’re sure to get it anyway. This version of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is an impressive technical accomplishment supported by very fine performances from the ensemble, that has plenty of layers to unpick. More than anything, it’s just a great shoot-em-up farce, a darkly comic treat with a black black heart. It may be a good year for Martin McDonagh, but with so much of his work available, it’s great for us too.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 8 September, and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1           


Machinal – Almeida Theatre

Machinal - Almeida Theatre

Violent crimes committed by women always seem more shocking, as though the idea of overcoming their supposedly nurturing and gentle natures somehow amplifies the evil of their bloodthirsty acts. Some of the most famous cases stay with us – Lizzie Borden who killed both her parents, Alma Rattenbury who murdered her husband and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK. Time and again these stories are examined in cultural spaces, including endlessly revived plays like Terrence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre, society is fascinated by women who don’t conform, unwilling to accept that some are equally capable of the most savage acts.

Based on a similar case, in 1928 journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell captured the soul-crushing restrictions placed on women in her impressive expressionist play Machinal. Far more than just a shocking murder story, it is an anatomy of a woman driven to despair by the stifling pressure to marry and have children merely because it was expected of her – a theme that will resonate powerfully with those who 90 years on are still encouraged to do the same. The central character’s continual cry to be let alone rings true today, society hasn’t changed so very much after all.

Taking place over nine scenes Machinal follows “Young Woman”, who through marriage, children and notoriety earns the name Helen Jones, and is working as a stenographer in a busy typing pool. Frequently late for work because of her subway claustrophobia, her colleagues speculate that the boss Jones wants to marry her. Equally confined by the tiny tenement apartment she shares with her overbearing mother, the play cuts to the wedding night and later to the birth of their first child where she becomes increasingly disgusted with her life, and desperate to escape. Then, a liberating encounter with “First Man”, leads Helen to take a drastic step to secure her freedom.

Revived at the Almeida Theatre, Natalie Abrahami’s production has a post-film noir aesthetic that adds a seedy darkness to Treadwell’s story. Miriam Buether has created a proscenium arch set with a tilted mirrored ceiling, a black box that confines Helen to a series of shadowy rooms in Jack Knowles’s low light. The action is then directly relocated to a series of passing decades, with each scene taking place in a slightly different era to its predecessor. Some critics found this either distracting or unnecessary, creating a rootlessness that upends the production, but there is much to admire not only in the way Buether recreates the essence of each period, but also in the expectations of women.

Had director Abrahami left the story in the 1920s, or picked any time until the present day, its purpose would have remained as relevant and clear – the joy of such a well-constructed play – and in that sense this transience is superfluous. Yet Buether’s design underscores, without distracting from, its political point that women’s essential freedom to design their own lives is no more a reality now that it was in the 1920s.

And it’s gorgeous to look at; darkness envelops every peripheral point of the stage, creeping around our beleaguered heroine as if about to drag her into the its folds at any moment. The focus of each scene, while dimly lit, are boldly picked-out often in burning lurid colour in the centre, purposefully constructed to emphasise the continuing isolation of the protagonist as her world shrinks from office to family. From a 1920s/30s typing pool full of rhythmic staccato clacks, to the hot pink blanket covering the honeymoon bed, to the citrus sofa of the marital home, the deliberate use of vivid colour contrasts so brutally with Helen’s emotional experience – she couldn’t feel less vibrant, refreshed or passionate as she slowly suffocates.

The visual effect appears to owe much to high fashion photographer Miles Aldridge, and its not hard to see his influence in the creation of striking stage images. Often in his work he places doll-like models in domestic environments – kitchens, supermarkets, gardens – playing on the Stepford Wives association of these empty-minded, plastic creations. Most relevant to Buether’s choices in Machinal, is the way he clashes and contrasts tones of highly saturated colour to add a sense of heightened reality, a falsity that suits the pressure on Helen to conform to societal expectations of marriage and parenting. Cunningly, Buether rolls-back these ideas in the three scenes where Helen feels most free, the gorgeous softly lit 1970s bar, the warm bedroom of her lover and the grey formality of the courtroom.

One of the joys of Machinal, is the sparsity of information offered in the text. Treadwell shies away from excessive exposition to show us only the crucial or formative moments that set Helen on the road to destruction. Plot is not quite the point of this clever play, but the emotional build of the character as she is ground beyond endurance, unwilling to submit to further automation. There is so much we don’t (or need to) see as the action skips from office to hotel to delivery room. Even the crime itself only becomes clear long after the fact as the prosecution delivers its attack, pushing Helen for the final time – a scene that lacks the sharply-honed dialogue and stylistic flair of the earlier action – as 90 carefully-controlled minutes arrive at their still shocking conclusion. This is referenced throughout by Knowles’s blinding flash of light that takes the audience between scenes, a jolt of electricity transporting us through time and a symbol of the greater force to come.

It’s not just the visual effects that are striking as Helen’s mental solitude is also under permanent aural attack. Designed by Ben and Max Ringham, the soundscape here is extraordinary, blasting in at the beginning and end of every scene, and almost muted to a low rumble of sound as the action plays out, appropriately reflecting the machine-gun-like delivery of Treadwell’s pointedly-constructed dialogue. There are typewriters nosily in tune with one another, drills beyond the maternity ward, music from the bar floats into the wedding night, all implying an exciting world beyond which Helen is prevented from enjoying, entombed as she is in a series of dark rooms.

As Helen, Emily Berrington has exactly the right tone of exhausted defiance, a woman standing slightly back from her own life as though observing from a distance, unable to stop the machinations of duty and expectation from pulling her under. None of the performances are designed specifically to earn audience sympathy, but instead act as representations of social archetypes, and Berrington, with considerable skill, consciously muffles the performance to convey an idea of Helen being constantly underwater, abstracted from her own actions as though impelled by some external force.

As Helen ticks the boxes of marriage and family, we see her develop from the fatigued young secretary, physically buffeted by those by around her, to a no less frustrated but more confident woman who takes a drastic step to release herself. The credibility of Berrington’s performance carries the audience through all of these stages, building up a picture of someone who has shouldered all they can bear, while clearly relishing the one taste of freedom she’s ever offered that becomes the tipping point.

Everyone else in Treadwell’s stylised piece becomes a vivid sketch, moments of unbearable noise -like the sound intrusions around Helen – that she cannot block out. Her former boss and husband Jones, played by Jonathan Livingstone, is a decent enough man with a good job and seemingly devoted to his wife and family, but Livingstone ensures we see him from Helen’s point of view. He too has a societal role to fulfil as provider and employer, so his demands for her affection seem to him something he is due by right, an access to her attention and her body bestowed on him by marriage. It’s subtle work from Livingstone who only hints at these ideas while using his appearances to suggest a man satisfied with his consumption-based life.

In a limited speaking role, Denise Black has a wonderful scene as Helen’s mother early in the show who in equal measures pushes and chastises her daughter for deciding to marry. Her mother is another noise in Helen’s life, dragging her down with responsibilities of care while Black captures her own struggle as a working-class woman raising a daughter alone. Abrahami uses her large supporting cast to create the crush of the city in the opening scene on the subway, the busy office and later the courtroom which in Buether’s box-like proscenium arch makes even the small Almeida stage feel claustrophobic. The extended cast also bring energy to Arthur Pita’s choreography used to underscore the punchy rhythm of Treadwell’s text.

Machinal is the type of production that only the Almeida seems able to produce, with an inventive vision that simultaneously draws you into the story while still keeping you at arms length. As observers, Treadwell is asking us to see Helen’s pain but remain numb to it, and instead to reflect on the mounting pressures that pushed her to an extreme act of violence. The sensationalism of female crime hasn’t much changed since the 1920s, but nor have the voices telling us our primary purpose is to marry and reproduce. Treadwell certainly feels ahead of her time, and the Almeida has produced a first-rate version of her finest work.

Machinal is at The Almeida Theatre until 21 July. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Donmar Warehouse

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Donmar Warehouse

While few would now agree that your schooldays are the best of your life, we would still admit to being shaped by our favourite teachers. Looking back, whether at primary or secondary level, the best classroom experiences came from discovering an aptitude for a particular subject or settling on a future career that the best teachers always encouraged, no matter how outlandish. Equally important as you grew up were the teachers who could communicate with you as individuals rather than another homogeneous set of pupils, whose intelligence, interest and enthusiasm would earn your respect. No wonder that drama has so frequently turned to the schoolroom for inspiration.

From Goodbye Mr Chips to Dangerous Minds on film, not to mention Carry on Teacher, to Rattigan’s The Browning Version and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys on stage, the teacher-student relationship is continually re-examined. While there has never been more pressure on modern teachers with strict curricula, endless testing and copious paperwork, fictional tutors are, for the most part, curiously free of such restrictions, able to use their unconventional methods to set their charges on the road to a brighter future. One of the most famous literary inventions of them all, is also the most controversial – is Jean Brodie a ‘progressive’ educator or a worrying menace to the mind of her ‘girls’.

A hundred years since the birth of novelist Muriel Spark, her 1961 tale The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been adapted for the Donmar Warehouse by Blackbird playwright David Harrower and directed by Polly Findlay. Page to stage adaptations can be perilous, truncating complex inner voices and motivations to fit the conventions of theatre that on the whole tends to work to a standard 2.5 hour run time, includes an interval at a suitable dramatic moment, and relies on certain expectations of conflict and resolution to propel the plot while sustaining audience attention – some theatre has moved away from this prescriptive approach, but most retains the format. All of this is the enemy of the novel, where authors have long experimented with flexible forms, shifting narratives and prolonged introspection that can seem flat and indulgent when transposed to a visual medium.

This is not the first time Spark’s book has been adapted and several theatrical versions have gone before. Yet, most people will know the 1969 film with Maggie Smith in the title role that allowed Brodie’s most famous phrases to enter the popular consciousness and become synonymous with her performance – to the point of caricature – right down the to genteel Edinburgh accent. This brings its own weight of expectation to Harrower’s new interpretation, with audience members coming anticipating a version of the novel, the film or both, with perhaps a clearly formed idea of how individuals and circumstances should be portrayed. How much viewers enjoy this may depend on their preparedness to relinquish their preconceptions about the characters.

Told in flashback, the story is Sandy’s memory, a former Brodie girl and, as the play begins, about to become a nun planning to take a vow of silence. Tracked down by a journalist who is interested in her previously published book, Sandy starts to talk about her arrival aged 11 at the Marcia Blaine School, where she and a select number of girls – Joyce, Monica, Mary and Jenny – fall under the spell of Miss Brodie, fascinated by her air of freedom, cultural knowledge and political fervour. As the children transform into young women, Miss Brodie’s influence makes its mark on all of them, while her ongoing flirtation with Music Teacher Mr Lowther and Art Teacher Mr Lloyd spills over into all their lives, exposing the extent of her effect on the girls.

While not an especially radical reinterpretation, Harrower has created a version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that recognisably celebrates the original novel and the charisma of its leading lady, while carefully sidestepping any parallels to the famous film. From first to last, the spectre of Maggie Smith and Celia Johsnon are banished, allowing a new cast to give shape and purpose to these roles. It’s a fairly safe production, using a conventional structure that loads the first half with praise and admiration for the inspiring teacher, while the second begins to tear at her motivation.

Harrower spends plenty of time establishing the key characters in the hour before the interval, building-up Miss Brodie as a free-spirit, a vision in scarlet, unwilling to conform to the rules and expectations of Marcia Blaine. A series of classroom scenes reveal her animated, if gossipy, teaching style, and what begins as a willingness to share stories of her life with her 11-year old charges soon includes criticisms of the headmistress and making her personal opinions the definitive response to a variety of topics when she starts to treat the girls as her confidants. Harrower’s adaptation renders this well, offering a sketch of life at the school that opens-up Miss Brodie’s method. Mirroring the girls’ experience, the kindliness of Act One becomes something more complex in Act Two.

After the interval, four years have gone by and the girls, now 15, are in the senior school and not directly taught by Miss Brodie. With so much of the real plot to now fit into the final hour of the show, this production makes clear the shifting affection of some girls has severed the closeness with their former teacher. And while it covers all the key consequences of her teaching style, the Donmar’s adaptation is slightly less successful in emphasising the political and sexual corruption that Miss Brodie advocates, actively using her girls like puppets to vicariously fulfil semi-romantic ideals she refuses to succumb to herself.

Partially, this is a desire to retain a shred of sympathy for the character, not wanting to entirely dismantle the affection that Sandy in particular, and the audience has developed for her. Although this is framed as Sandy’s story, it’s clear from the final scene, which appears out of chronological sequence, that it is Miss Brodie this production wants us to look at rather than the results of her work. The significant moment of political influence that Miss Brodie wields is lightly referenced earlier but the key conversation and its outcome are quickly dispatched in two rapid scenes, likewise the sexual encounter she encourages is glossed over rather than seen as a monstrous attempt to manipulate a young woman. These moments, and the outcomes of Miss Brodie’s intimacy with her set, could be considerably darker, leaving the audience with a more ambiguous image to take home with them.

Lia Williams is an actor who never fails to find exactly the right tone for a character and always brings something fresh to her interpretation. As Miss Brodie, Williams carefully controls every aspect of her interpretation, from the way she carries herself to the particular intonation of the soft Edinburgh accent. Dressed by Designer Lizzie Clachlan in tailored reds and greens to complement a meticulously curled strawberry blonde wig, Williams steps lightly across the stage, arms outstretched, or fingers delicately poised to emphasise her point as she imparts her wisdom to the class. Her physical presence is purposefully contrived to suggest a woman who tightly controls her image, consciously designing the impression of perfection she wants to convey to garner the exact devotional response she desires.

Beneath, there is a warmth to her exuberant tales in which Williams demonstrates how easy it would be for her to charm you, but away from the classroom hints are given of the more sullied desires beneath the surface. The way Williams looks at Edward MacLiam’s Mr Lloyd conveys a raging lust she struggles to hold in check, while actively manipulating the emotions of Angus Wright’s Mr Lowther to feed her vanity while actively dismisses his advances at every turn. As events begin to unravel in Act Two, Williams suggests something almost desperate in Miss Brodie, as her star begins to wane and the affection she ‘demanded’ from the girls dissipates. Although it’s an easy association, there’s something of Blanche Dubois about her, all affectation, secrets and delusion that make you wonder if any of the elaborate stories she’s told – even that of her deceased fiancé – were ever true.

Rona Morison has the more difficult task of portraying Sandy at three different stages of her life – aged 11, 15 and approximately 25 – which isn’t always as clear as it could be. The show’s structure allows director Polly Findlay to cut directly between the elder Sandy discussing events with the Journalist (Kit Young) at the convent and walking directly into the school, but she’s not a character you come to know. Morison does the best with what she is given, but as an observer to much of the action, Sandy’s own motivations, her continuing devotion to Miss Brodie long after the other girls have departed and her crucial role in the conclusion are left fairly unexplored.

Some of the girls are less well-defined, so in a tightly packed two hours and 15 minutes of stage time, there’s only space to see the wider set as Miss Brodie describes them, the intelligent Monica (Grace Saif), the wannabe actress Jenny (Helena Wilson) and meek Mary (Emma Hindle). Nicole Coughlan’s Joyce Emily more complete captures the childlike manner than the other performers, arriving as a sweetly self-conscious and adorable 11-year-old who desperately wants to be included, but feels the pain of not quite finding her own group, while as a 15-year-old Joyce’s political awakening could be given more room in the text, Coughlan imbues Joyce with a naïve idealism and determination that make an impact.

There is good support from Angus Wright’s puppy-dog-like Mr Lowther who only has to be reasonably dull and devoted to Miss Brodie, although his insistance on pressing his feelings in front of the girls adds a nice touch of determined awkwardness. MacLiam’s Mr Lloyd has a small role but cuts a dash as a fairly glamorous figure in his own right, artistic, surprisingly carefree despite his many children and service in the Great War which contrasts well with the staid school atmosphere and makes him a worthy flirtation for Miss Brodie. As Headmistress Miss MacKay, Sylvestra Le Touzel is a granite-like presence, occasionally a little two quiet even for the Donmar’s intimate space, yet her determination to remove Miss Brodie is as calculating as it is cool.

On Clachlan’s tomb-like set, this production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie contrasts cold-learning, and harsh realities with the idea of life experience and vivacity, separated by the ringing of bells that hang from the ceiling signalling the end of lessons and scenes. As the play unfolds, Harrower charts how we come to know the human foibles and failings of the adults in our lives, ones which at an impressionable age can shape you in the wrong way. It’s not quite the crème de la crème, deliberately pacifying some of Miss Brodie’s dark sexual and political influences in order to retain sympathy for her, but it is an enjoyable and distinct adaptation that does make you wonder where your favourite teachers are now and how much they really influenced you.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is at the Donmar Warehouse until 28 July, tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  


Julie – National Theatre

Julie - National Theatre

In the last 5 years some of the National Theatre most memorable productions have centred on the experience of woman who feel powerless or constrained. Carrie Cracknell’s fearsome 2014 version of Medea with Helen McCrory felt like the beginning of a shift towards a greater understanding of literature’s most complex heroines, shackled to a smothering social order they have nothing to do with creating. In 2016, Cracknell and McCrory returned with a sublime adaption of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea which retained its post-war setting but in Tom Scutt’s fresh design brought a raw emotional intensity to the story. The same can be said of Ruth Wilson’s Hedda Gabler which opened later that year in which Ivo van Hove’s modern setting brought a clarity to Ibsen that allowed Wilson to shine.

These examples made it look easy but reimagining a classic isn’t necessarily straightforward. While it may seem that all a Company should do is decide whether to move the action to the modern day and if the original text needs to be updated, then put it in a funky, preferably spacious set and let the plaudits flow in, it is a lot more complicated than that. They also need to really understand, and most importantly to convey, the psychology of the characters. If you’re removing cluttered sets and archaic language, then the stage has to be filled with something else, the inner lives of the characters writ large, painful and inescapable, taking the audience on the dark path the protagonist embarks on.

In the National’s new production of Miss Julie based on Strindberg’s 1889 tragedy about class and aimless despair, writer Polly Stenham has made her choices; as well as dropping Miss from the title, the action is relocated from nineteenth-century Sweden to a house party in 2018 Hampstead. Stenham too has placed Stindberg aside and written the text herself using the key plot points to shape a more up-to-date interpretation, sidestepping the coyness of Strindberg’s original for open discussion of sex, money and drug-taking.

As maid Kristina and chauffeur Jean tidy the kitchen, a birthday party rages in the room upstairs. It’s the early hours of the morning, people are dancing wildly, filling the house with beat, and sweat and noise, but birthday girl Julie feels lost, abandoned, alone. Recently dumped by her fiancé and with no sign of her father, Julie throws herself wildly into the party, finding it increasingly difficult to paper over the cracks, or pretend she’s having a good time. Wandering into the kitchen she falls into conversation with Jean, and as a heat grows between them they become reckless. Knowing they cannot be together, the pair toy with each other until a crisis is reached. In the aftermath, both must decide what their future holds.

Julie is at heart an examination of how easy betrayal can be. In various guises, characters are disloyal to one another breaking conventions for one small moment of satisfaction that ultimately seems insignificant against the tribulations it unleashes. Julie is a destructive and a self-destructive presence, which acts like a contagion during the play, dragging others into her sphere of misery. With surprisingly little goading, Jean dismissively betrays the warm and easy relationship he has with fiancée Kristina. At the same time Julie, claiming to adore Kristina betrays their years of friendship by pursuing something she doesn’t particularly need just for the pleasure of being wanted for a moment. The consequences of this double attack on Kristina suggest only misery and regret will follow.

But both the central characters also end up betraying themselves with reckless action outside of their usual character that backs them into a corner. Despite Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) claiming he once held an unrequited love for Julie, impossible to act upon given his role as a servant, you sense that he’s not the person he becomes on this one night. While remote and arguably underwritten in Stenham’s adaptation, he’s not someone we come to know particularly well, but there is a sense of moral decency that runs through him, of not wanting to cross the line, of responsibility and of sober restraint. And it is Julie who pushes him to betray his own character, to act beyond his usual limits for which he feels ashamed.

As the star of the show Vanessa Kirby’s Julie is more complex, described early-on by Kristina as a character in “technicolour”, she is full of contradictions, loves partying, claims to be gregarious but it’s all a front to hide her overwhelming lack of purpose. Clearly still grieving from the suicide of her mother an unspecified number of years before and reeling from the end of her relationship, Kirby’s Julie seems brittle but has moments of bravado, even shocking selfishness and cruelty that make her difficult to like – including a League of Gentlemen-inspired moment with a budgie. In confrontations with Jean he accuses her of being rich, entitled, spoiled and with the luxury of time, allowing her to be self-indulgent in her misery because she has nothing else to do – it’s hard to disagree.

But Kirby has played enough of these types of women on stage and screen to bring out the underlying complexity in Julie’s situation. She may be all of the things Jean says, but she knows it and that is the key to her disillusion with the world and her inability to claw her way out of the box she has created for herself. Being the good-time-girl is all she knows how to do, not because she wants to, but because its like putting on armour for her, a way to face each day without succumbing to the desperation that her encounter with Jean finally unplugs. These are the wonderful female performances that Director Carrie Cracknell so often elicits, and Kirby illuminates the stage, even left alone and unspeaking at the end, she fills the room with a strange intensity, she’s pushed Julie almost to the point where the audience can barely sympathise with her, yet she remains compelling.

Kirby’s performance is the high point in show that elsewhere has some problems to solve before Thursday’s press night. At only 85-minutes and after a raucous start, there are passages where the energy noticeably dips. So much of the action takes place in duologue between Julie and Jean, and despite a lovely moment when they first assess each other from opposite ends of the sizeable Lyttelton stage with such a charge that they could be face-to-face, with so little of Jean’s character elucidated and with a more watered-down class divide, their interactions too frequently feel as though there’s little at stake when the opposite should be true.

Aspects of Stenham’s modern setting are well realised by Cracknell and her team, the raging house party that dominates the raised area at the back of the stage makes for an energetic beginning, a context for the action to come and lasting a surprisingly long time before anyone speaks. Tom Scutt’s clinical kitchen set and intimidating concrete table is at once the image of modish luxury, a desire for chic and expensive homes devoid of personality, but as a sliding wall blocks out the dwindling party the tone changes, with Scutt’s work, lit by Guy Hoare, increasingly resembling a windowless prison, reiterating Julie’s concern with the bubble and trap of privilege.

Yet there is a nagging thought all the way through that the whole production feels like a pretence, ironically mirroring that same idea the characters have of themselves. With so many successful modern adaptations of classic work, why update Strindberg’s text at all? Surely there is plenty of scope for producing a modern version of the original work that doesn’t require a full rewrite. The production wants to feel edgy but peppering the text with references to sex and drugs is no replacement for the uneven tension between Jean and Julie. The nature of the class system has so changed that a liaison between the boss’s daughter and the chauffeur isn’t the scandal it once would have been, while any intended inter-racial subtext is entirely diluted and all-but irrelevant. Other than Jean already being in a relationship, it’s hard to see why the consequences of their liaison should be so mutually destructive.

To make this work, the audience needs to know much more about the other characters and in particular why Jean would suddenly risk everything. Julie says he doesn’t give much away, but for the viewer it makes it difficult to understand and appreciate his motivation, or to invest in the personal fall-out. Arguably, with the weakening of the master-servant relationship in modern Britain there were other ways to recast Jean’s position that would have better explained the hold Julie’s father would have over him, deference doesn’t quite ring true, whereas a monetary / business connection could be more viable, making him a rising star in her father’s firm with plenty to lose. Similarly, Thalissa Teixeira rings every ounce of nuance from the role of Kristina, a kind friend and loyal girlfriend. Teixeira delivers a superb final shame-inducing speech which bursts Jean and Julie’s bubble, but if you’re modernising the play why not give her more to do than wander on silently to clean in the downtime between interactions. The history of Kristina’s protective, almost motherly, support for Julie could be better explored in the text which needs to offer a more complete understanding of the scale of the betrayals that occur, and a greater insight into Julie’s family life to ratchet up the tension in the aftermath of the party.

Re-imagining a classic is then not as easy as it sounds, and while there is lots to like in Cracknell’s production that pushes Kirby’s multifaceted performance to the front, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed in part. There is a balance to be found in rewriting a well-known play – as those like Patrick Marber can attest with successful adaptations of Three Days in the Country and Don Juan in Soho –  one that honours the original while making changes that are more suited to the modern setting. While Stenham retains plenty of Strindberg’s purpose, Julie doesn’t go quite far enough in remoulding the political and psychological shape of its characters for the twenty-first century. Imaginative it certainly is and well performed, but like a later sequel to a classic novel it bears the marks of slightly unsatisfactory imitation. May as well have just adapted Strindberg.

Julie is at the National Theatre until 08 September and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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