Tag Archives: Ralph Fiennes

Antony and Cleopatra – National Theatre

Anthony and Cleopatra - National Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review of the Year and What to See in 2017

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Very few of us will be sorry to see the back of 2016, politically and socially it’s been a tough year all round. But it hasn’t been all bad with London’s cultural output thriving in uncertain times and at the start of 2016 there was much to anticipate. While 2015 theatre was all about five big male performance, 2016 was a time for some of our leading female actors to take to the stage with powerful productions of The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre with Helen McCrory on devastating form as Rattigan’s desperate heroine, while The Young Vic’s Yerma cemented Billie Piper’s growing status as a very fine stage performer, and closing the year, The National’s innovative Hedda Gabler with a brutally savage turn from Ruth Wilson as the suffocated society wife.

Some other good but not perfect productions also heralded some noteworthy for roles for Gemma Chang in Jamie Lloyd’s exciting take on Pinter’s The Homecoming, for Juliette Stevenson and Lia Williams in Mary Stuart (review to follow next week), Sharon D Clarke in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Amber Riley in Dreamgirls. Not to be outdone notable male performances including Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder which was one of his finest ever stage roles, shamefully overlooked by the Olivier committee, as well as the lead in a notable Richard III at the Almeida. Later in the year Kenneth Branagh defied comparisons to deliver a moving and powerful interpretation of The Entertainer while Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith found new depth in The Dresser, not forgetting Kit Harrington cavorting about in his pants and making a decent job of the leading role in Jamie Lloyd’s controversial but resonant Faustus. But my favourite was Mark Strong’s incredible performance in The Red Barn which earned a first professional five-star review from me.

For theatre 2017 is already promising a host of hotly anticipated male roles and having opened 2016 with another chance to see his magnificent Richard II at the Barbican, David Tennant returns to the Wyndhams stage in March for Patrick Marber’s contemporary adaptation of Don Juan in Soho which promises a great deal. Also in March Daniel Radcliffe returns to London in an Old Vic production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead while in April star-director Ivo van Hove’s version of Obsession opens at the Barbican with film-star Jude Law. The National also revives its production of Angels in America with Russell Tovey which will be one of the big openers in 2017.  But the show to watch next year is a hotly anticipated version of Hamlet at the Almeida which opens in late February staring Andrew Scott, Juliet Stevenson, Jessica Brown Findlay and rising star Luke Thompson. Comparisons with Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet are inevitable but the Almeida is a much smaller space and Robert Icke’s vision may yet surprise us.

Art and exhibitions have noted a major change in presentation and style since the 2015 Alexander McQueen show which really altered the way items are presented. Utilising the success of this the V&A called on their design experience to present a lively examination of 60s popular and political culture in Records and Rebels which you can still see a little while longer. In a similar vein Vogue celebrated its 100th birthday with an excellent exhibition of its fashion photography which emphasised its role in reflecting the changing world around the magazine, while the Barbicans show about The Vulgar collected some excellent exhibits but misused them in over-intellectualised structure. And Somerset House celebrated fan-art inspired by the weird and wonderful world of Kubrick films.

From July the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme offered two of London’s most successful shows focused on very different aspects of conflict. The Science Museum’s Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care was an eye-opening and well researched examination of a little known aspect of the First Wold War, while the Imperial War Museum comes very close to show of the year with its excellent Real to Reel exhibition on war movies. That accolade actually goes to the Royal Academy for its Painting the Modern Garden show which collated so many beautiful paintings that wandering from crowded room to crowded room was never less than a joy.

Looking ahead and the headline show for 2017 is the Tate’s David Hockney retrospective from February which is set to unite his UK and US work for the first time. After a stunning 2012 show at the Royal Academy, a proper examination of Hockney’s work is long overdue and this is sure to be a big hit for Tate Britain after their disappointing Paul Nash and Empire shows. This will be followed by a show on the impressionists in London from November.

Meanwhile other American art comes into focus with big shows on post-1930s art at the Royal Academy from February and Pop Art and the American Dream at the British Museum from March. In February Kensington Palace opens a guaranteed money-spinning crowd-pleaser with a showcase of Princess Diana’s dresses set to run for two years, while at the tail end of next year the Queen’s Gallery launches its examination of Charles II’s art.

London’s 2016 Film Festival was once again lived up to anticipation and seems to be going from strength to strength. As well as the Amy Adams double bill of linguistic sci-fi adventure Arrival and Tom Ford’s stylishly dark morality tale Nocturnal Animals which have already opened in the UK as well as Andrea Arnold’s superb American Honey, the Film Festival also showcased a number of significant films due to open here in the early part of 2017. Best among and them already earning countless award nominations is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land which is in cinemas from 13 January and is an exceptional clash of the classic Hollywood musical and modern grittier experiences of trying to make it in LA. It is beautifully realised and its stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, have never been better.

Out in the same week is Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (review to follow shortly), a sensitive portrayal of grief and guilt with its stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams certain to dominate the acting honours in February. Although full release dates are not yet announced theatre director Benedict Andrews’s adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, now retitled Una and starring Rooney Mara deals with the difficult issue of abuse and its consequences. Although the film’s approach does undermine its purpose to a degree it will create talking points on release, and a review will follow when that date is announced. Finally Adam Smith’s first film Trespass Against Us, starring Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender is scheduled for 3 March, with both playing members of a Gloucestershire traveller community, replete with local accents, who account for much of the local crime rate. Premiering at the Film Festival, it offers some impressive low-budget car chases and great black comedy moments, as well as fine performances from its top-notch cast.

So as we swiftly kick 2016 away it may not have been a great year but it has offered a number of cultural highs. With plenty of potentially excellent theatre, exhibitions and films in the works, there’s much to look forward to in the year ahead.

Reviews are posted every Monday at 12.30pm.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Richard III – The Almeida

Ralph Fiennes as Richard III by Miles Aldridge

Richard III may well be the most frequently performed Shakespeare play of the last few years, seemingly spawning more productions than Hamlet. Given a new lease of life after the discovery of his body in a Leicester car park in 2012, we’ve seen the lead role played by Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic, Martin Freeman in a Jaime Lloyd version, a wonderful promenade production by Iris Theatre Company in St Paul’s church yard and Mark Rylance at the Globe. The Faction opened 2016 with its innovative version at The New Diorama starring Christopher York and a few weeks ago the BBC screened its version with Benedict Cumberbatch. Now at the Almeida, Ralph Fiennes assumes the role of Shakespeare’s most controversial villain.

Fiennes is having an incredible run of form on stage; he’s taken on three mammoth roles in major productions with a combined stage time of well over 11 hours. Starting with Man and Superman last year at the National, The Master Builder at the Old Vic in February – both shamefully overlooked by the award panels – and now Richard III for the Almeida; it’s an impressive commitment to theatre that in little more than a year has been incredible to watch. This performance feels like the end of a trilogy of works that have examined the ambiguous nature of power and its ability to release the inner strands of villainy and self-absorption disguised by a charming manner and degree of the subject’s star power. While Man and Superman’s John Tanner was the least dangerous, his vanity led naturally into Fiennes next role as Ibsen’s Halvard Solness the eponymous master builder who sacrifices everything for fame, and ultimately then to the dark and dangerous charisma of Richard III who covets greater status and will do anything to get it.

The Almeida’s production opens with the archaeological dig in that Leicester car park with forensic officers searching for remains in an open grave where they find the skull and curved spine of Richard. It’s a poignant opening that references both the ongoing contemporary interest in Richard’s story, and Shakespeare’s own version of it, as well as the burden of mortality which hangs heavy over this interpretation. Though mostly covered in a retractable glass platform, the grave is visible throughout reminding the audience that Richard will cause many deaths on his path to the throne – and reversing the soldier-ornaments concept from And Then There Were None, skulls appear on the back wall with each fatality – but also that for all his machinations this too will be Richard’s own fate. In an interesting directorial decision, at key moments the glass is retracted and characters move around the open grave and occasionally die into it implying perhaps that these decisions seal Richard’s own fate.

It’s a contemporary design using a palette of sombre black to reflect the constant mourning of the court, with touches of monarchical gold. Jon Morrell’s costumes and Hildegard Bechtler’s set offer a modern yet timeless element to the story, combining a minimalist simplicity with hints of cold stone palaces and Midlands battlefields. A swinging chain mail curtain separates the throne from the grave, a potent symbol of the role of war in the creation and destruction of medieval monarchy which reflects the play’s own concern with the grieving royal widows whose fortunes were decided in combat. More perhaps could be made of the military influence on this society in other areas of the design to really emphasise the years of brutality, suspicion and devastation that have afflicted Yorkist England.

Fiennes’s Richard III is a monstrous combination of magnetism and psychopathy that wins the audience’s interest early on. He begins by letting us in on his plans and as he wheedles his way towards the crown, his methods become increasingly dangerous and sadistic. But charm comes first and as we see in only the second scene language is his initial tool to convince the Lady Anne to marry him and then winning the various council members to his will. Later still we see his physical strength that despite his deformity, is sufficient to overpower and subdue Anne and Queen Elizabeth as well as prove a worthy opponent in battle.

The curved spine held up by the archaeologists at the start is mirrored in the prosthetic Fiennes wears which makes the ridges of the backbone occasionally visible through his costume. His right arm is clamped to his side, the left shoulder built up and one foot slightly turned in, but this is no panto representation and Fiennes absorbs Richard’s deformity into a fuller perspective of the character – Richard rarely draws attention to his differences and Fiennes subtly uses that to imply the powerful way in which Richard sees himself, as the same or better than other men. The intensity of performance is a joy to watch and each of his soliloquies are magnificent; he has a great feel for the verse and a stage presence that creates a very different energy and vitality when he’s there. Fiennes in full flight is really something to see, and as his Richard explodes with anger and recrimination, as well the more sensitive and troubled moments of conscience, it’s thrilling to immerse yourself in such a high calibre performance.

A number of other actors also stand out, particularly Finbar Lynch as Richard’s co-conspirator the Duke of Buckingham who helps to work the council and arranges a few deaths that propel Richard to the throne before bulking at the murder of the Princes. Scott Handy has a sensitive and moving role as the innocent Duke of Clarence, Richard’s brother and first victim that provides a stark contrast with our protagonist, while Aislin McGuckin is a fiery Queen Elizabeth who charts the descent from ultimate power to destruction really well. Her lengthy scene in the second part of the play with Fiennes in which he persuades her to let him marry her daughter is one of the best in the production, full of tension and bitterness that builds to what will be a controversial climax, although one which brings fresh perspective to this scene and will be a talking point on the way home.

With five shows under its belt, the Almeida’s production is still in preview so a lot can still change, and with three further performances before Thursday’s press night there are a few things the show could do to make even more of an impact. Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays have a huge cast of characters to keep straight so it’s easy for an audience to be confused by the various Dukes and members of the clergy, and too often in the group scenes a lot of characters are dotted around the stage and seemingly not reacting to the speaker. You can see that Fiennes’s Richard is constantly thinking, whatever is being said the wheels are turning in his mind and his blood is boiling, and some of the other characters need to give more thought to how they feel about what’s being said and what it means for them. This would help to differentiate some of the secondary roles and give greater nuance to the shifting factions of the court.

Not much has been cut and with a first half coming in at 1 hour, 45 minutes, the show feels a little sluggish at first and there are a number of scenes in which various men sit around a table politicking so perhaps there’s scope to inject some dynamism in the staging. More thought too could be given to the role of the women to whom Shakespeare has given considerable focus but are not yet being used to make a forceful point either about the consequences of warfare in this period or as the only people able to see through Richard’s veneer of politeness. It’s a rare treat to see Vanessa Redgrave on stage (as Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI) and she delivers her lines beautifully but it’s not yet clear where the character is pitched – is she mad or do the others only think so? Likewise Joanna Vanderham’s Lady Anne has a single shouty pitch which isn’t capturing the pawn-like nature of the character or the lot of marryable highborn women to be treated like possessions. Phoebe Fox in the recent BBC version was a moving Lady Anne, while Kristin Scott Thomas in the McKellen film played her as a deadeyed drug addict detached from it all, so Vanderham needs to find an angle. Scott Thomas was actually in the audience and would be a good shout for the yet unannounced role as Cleopatra opposite Fiennes in the National’s forthcoming Anthony and Cleopatra.

Finally there are a couple of themes that are hinted at but never fully realised. Lord Hastings (an excellent James Garnon) is the only person with a mobile phone which he uses to impart news, but this device isn’t utilised (and could be) in other places. If the director, Rupert Goold, is making the point that only Hastings is engaged in this way then we need the other characters to respond to that, or having other people bored and texting may add to the big scenes which currently lack reaction. And while I like the car park opener there’s only a hinted return to that at the very end which feels a little incomplete as a comment on modern engagement, maybe we need to see the bones again or have some kind of re-interment to close the story.

Regardless of these small changes, this production of Richard III is fascinating, powerful and compelling. With a reawakened interest in this period of history, audiences are coming to this play with greater knowledge of the story and looking for an intelligent approach to one of Shakespeare’s darkest works. Fiennes is the life-blood of this production, creating a loathsome, terrifying and engaging villain who easily outmanoeuvres those around him and keeps the audience on the edge of their seat throughout. As an exploration in human morality Fiennes’s recent roles have taken us from a bachelor afraid of marriage to an emotionally damaged man avenging himself on the world, reminding us what a truly powerful performer he is.

Richard III is at The Almeida Theatre until 6 August. The show has some seats available from £10 but day seats are available from 11am at the box office or via lottery. There will also be the first live screening from The Almeida to cinemas on 21 July.  


The Master Builder – Old Vic

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Ralph Fiennes is truly a master builder… of character, and the West End has seen two highly accomplished performances in under a year and with the announcement last week that he’ll take the lead in Antony and Cleopatra at the National in 2018 stage work is taking priority. Following on from his superb lead in Man and Superman, Fiennes has just began a 2 month run as Halvard Solness the title character in Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Now Ibsen is tough to get right despite being the second most performed playwright after Shakespeare and it’s taken me some time to come round to him, long deterred by dreary productions in cluttered rooms. The Dolls House, which I will never see again, I studied for both A-Level English Literature and Theatre Studies, and put me off Ibsen for a very long time – forget waterboarding if you ever want to torture someone show them the Juliet Stevenson TV version on a loop and they’ll tell you anything you want to know just to make it stop,

Thankfully after many years elapse Ibsen plays have been given a new lease of life. Following on from the searing darkness of Ghosts at the Trafalgar Studios and the Old Vic’s own production of Hedda Gabler with Sheridan Smith in 2012, this production of The Master Builder has hit the West End at a fortuitous moment, when cluttered Victorian drawings room designs have been swept away and replaced with simpler, airy designs that focus attention on character. What the National did for Chekhov last summer (in the marvellous Three Days in the Country), the Old Vic has now done for Ibsen.

The Master Builder is the story of Halvard Solness, a man who has reached the peak of his profession in his local town. A self-trained architect who started on the building sites, he has risen to control all those around him. Solness is not a good man and early on in the play (so no spoiler) we learn that he and his wife lost their children when their former home burned to the ground, and while they have lived as virtual strangers for many years, that tragedy created the opportunity for his professional success. A consummate manipulator, particularly of women’s affections, Solness’s life is thrown into disarray when a young woman breezes in announcing that he’d kissed her when she was just 13 and promised her a kingdom, which she has now come to claim. Catalysed by her arrival, over the course of three acts, Solness debates the outcomes of his life, clinging to his fame while finally verbalising his guilt and fear, wondering if the personal happiness he has long denied himself has finally arrived.

Ralph Fiennes is surely on course to earn two Olivier nominations in one year (qualifying period is 25 February 2015 to 16 February 2016) which would be an extraordinary achievement given the challenging roles he has selected, and this performance as the Master Builder is one of his finest. Over the course of three acts he drip feeds us insights which begin to change your perspective, it’s not so much a progression as a skilled unravelling of a man riven with insecurities, but clinging to the perhaps meaningless attributes of pride and fame. At the end of Act One we’ve seen a man in complete control of his life, career and the people around him, and Fiennes brilliantly uses not just his tone of voice but also an imposing physicality to make it clear that Solness is king of all he surveys. This form of domineering masculinity is expressed in a firm Colossus-like stance, feet firmly apart and hands on hips, or sitting grandly back in his chair, completely relaxed and in control as he casually flicks away the adoration of his female book-keeper. Even when Hilde Wangel arrives with kissing claims, he dismisses her as a silly girl so by the first interval the man Fiennes has given us is clearly objectionable and manipulative.

David Hare’s adaptation is by no means overwritten but on several occasions Solness gives voice to his turmoil some moments after the audience has already understood that quite clearly from Fiennes’s high calibre performance. The finest actors don’t just act but are able to completely become their characters, and in the Second Act we seen Solness weaken as the effects of the last few years take their toll and he reveals the still tender scars of loss and guilt at having success built on tragedy. His body languages changes from the confidence of the first section to a more shrunken figure, shoulders drooping and pressed into his body, and in a particularly intense scene with his wife, he curls entirely into himself. Much of the introspection he saves for his conversations with Hilde so Fiennes cleverly resumes his more masculine stance when others enter the room, almost a habit he can’t shake off, but partly an unwillingness to concede the spoils he has won even though they don’t make him happy.

Throughout the production this notion of manly expectation is given greater meaning by the knowledge that he has no heir to inherit whatever he has achieved, the lack of children somehow being an affront to his masculinity which he compensates for by being overbearing. The implied casual dalliances with other women and fear of youth taking his prizes away from him are, in Fiennes’s interpretation, a driving force, battles to be won. What was also so fascinating was its contemporary resonance with celebrity culture and the obsessions of fandom which Fiennes, perhaps subconsciously, has drawn on. The idea that the fan feels they know the celebrity, and thereby projects fantasy traits and situations onto them comes across very strongly in this version of the Hilde-Solness relationship, making you wonder how many of the Harry Potter fans in the audience are doing the same with Fiennes in that moment, and what it must be like to have young, and not so young, women (and men) be so engaged with your life in that way.

The character of Hilde then is an interesting one and is designed to bring a sense of freshness to proceedings. To some extent her projections of Solness embolden her so it appears for the first time he is challenged and understood by someone. Sarah Snook’s performance never quite allows the audience to decide if Hilde has entirely invented the kiss, and was merely confused by the awakening of adult feelings in a young girl. It’s a crucial point in the play actually, determining whether Solness was genuinely despicable enough to take advantage of a young girl or whether it’s all in her head, and it’s a good thing to leave open to interpretation. Similarly, it’s never entirely clear whether Hilde genuinely wants Solness to fulfil her dreams or is bent on revenge, and in the final moments her almost sexual excitement could suggest either. Hilde could be a fantasist affected by the repression of sexual feeling, or herself a skilled manipulator plotting the demise of a figure who let her down. While Snook implies these things, sometimes her performance gets a bit jolly hockey-sticks as if trying too hard to appear different to the others, and sadly she is no match for Fiennes who is on considerable form here, so her half of the duologues feel less psychologically complete and it’s harder to see why he’s so won over by her.

There’s good support from Martin Hutson as Ragnar Brovik, the assistant architect frustrated by Solness constantly overlooking his talents and from Charlie Cameron as Ragnar’s fiancée Kaja Fosil with whom Solness mercilessly flirts and casts aside. Linda Emond too as Mrs Solness is very touching and, despite her short stage time, creates an impression of duty that supplants the grief and suffering she feels, which nicely matches the public persona her husband has created to supress his own grief, and there’s a brilliant scene between them in Act Two where they start to move towards one another only to be interrupted, hinting at the relationship they had once had.

There is something quite Shakespearean about this production, a tragedy in the dramatic sense as the protagonist’s fatal flaw leads to an inevitable outcome. David Hare’s careful adaptation highlights the ambiguity of the characters and their position, bringing in the elements of fantasy and philosophical reflection while repurposing the language for the modern ear. Matthew Warchus directs with purpose, giving his actors room to fully explore the various nuances of character while maintaining a handle on pace and tension. Rob Howell’s design is a sight to be seen, long gone is the tiresome clutter of past productions and instead he has created a stylish architects home that feels modern and slick but surrounded on 3 sides by the charred remnants of the past, which whatever they do, they can never escape.  I was beginning to despair of the Old Vic’s new season and had been underwhelmed with the offerings so far but this is a triumph – the perfect combination of great writing, meaningful design, good direction and superlative performance. But my word is this Fiennes’s play and Oliviers or not, it will certainly be talked about for years to come. Don’t miss it.

The Master Builder is at the Old Vic until 19 March. Tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Review of the Year and What to See in 2016

2015 has been a golden year for London culture combining top-quality theatre with some of Britain’s leading actors, some game-changing exhibitions and probably the best London Film Festival so far. Coming up with at least 52 review posts seemed easy with so many incredible opportunities on offer and with current announcements it’s hard to see how 2016 is going to compete.  The big news this time last year was the impending arrival of what I termed ‘the big five’ to the London stage as James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Ralph Fiennes, Damien Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch were all set to appear. The year opened with a deliciously dark production of The Ruling Class with McAvoy in fine fettle as the serenely insane Lord of the manor which saw him unicycling in his underwear and attached to a crucifix. It’s a performance that received a lot of awards attention – not just for the underwear – recently winning an Evening Standard Award as well as nominations for the 2016 What’s On Stage Awards but lost the Olivier to Mark Strong.

Next up the West End transfer of A View from the Bridge led by Mark Strong confirmed its place as the best production of recent years earning a clutch of awards before transferring to Broadway in the autumn to even more acclaim. Next came Ralph Fiennes in the National’s superb revival of Man and Superman that took a more modern approach to a classic play, and with Fiennes on stage for more than 3 hours award nominations seem likely. The National, on balance, had an excellent year under new Director Rufus Norris, staging wonderfully fresh productions of The Beaux’ Stratagem, Three Days in the Country and Husbands and Sons, but the less said about A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire the better, undoubtedly the worst and most tedious thing I saw this year.

In April Damien Lewis returned to the West End as the dangerously charming lead in a thoroughly enjoyable revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, happily bringing Jon Goodman and Tom Sturridge with him, and the ‘big five’ concluded with the probably the most hyped Hamlet of all time starring Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Selling out a year in advance, his performance was sadly overshadowed by there being more drama off-stage (about not signing autographs, cheeky early reviews and audience filming) that on and sadly the whole thing deflated by the time we got to see what was at best an average show. Good interpretation by Cumberbatch but drowned in a needlessly cavernous stage – pity.

But for all the excitement these star actors produced some of the biggest treats were unexpected hits including the Royal Court’s transfer of The Nether – a brilliant and challenging production – as well as the superb Hangmen which is undoubtedly the best new play of 2015 which you can now see at the Wyndhams until mid-February. Other unexpected gems were The Globe’s production of The Broken Heart, the Old Vic’s High Society and the Donmar’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with commanding performances from Dominic West and Janet McTeer which also runs till February. Finally Kenneth Branagh delighted us by forming a theatre company and bringing two of five plays to the West End for a 10 month season at the Garrick, opening the delightfully staged Harlequinade and the utterly beautiful The Winter’s Tale with Judi Dench.

Branagh features heavily then in the 2016 shows to see with expectation now running high for his versions of Romeo and Juliet with Cinderella stars Lily James and Richard Madden, The Painkiller with Rob Brydon and an Olivier-esque role as The Entertainer in Osborne’s classic.  From what we’ve seen so far, these are bound to be delightful so booking now is advisable. Ralph Fiennes is also back in The Master Builder at the Old Vic which his performance is sure to raise, especially as recent offerings Future Conditional and the inexplicable The Hairy Ape have been a let-down (despite critical support). David Tennant is reprising his magnificent performance as Richard II at the Barbican as part of the RSC’s History play cycle early in the year which is another chance to see one of the best productions of recent times. Otherwise 2016 so far will be dominated by the Harry Potter stage show, announced with Jamie Parker as the lead after his show stealing performance in High Society, and several musicals including a West End Transfer for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard and the launch of Mowtown the Musical. Maybe not as inspiring yet as the start of 2015 was but undoubtedly more announcements to come.

Over in the exhibition sector 2015 marked a new raft of new approaches. Leading the pack was the V&A’s game-changer Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty which stunned everyone with its dynamic approach to displaying beautiful fashion, necessitating 24 hour opening towards the end to meet the need. Smaller galleries also began to make their mark particularly the wonderful House of Illustration near King’s Cross that staged Ladybird by Design and E H Shepard: An Illustrator’s War taking a new and intelligent approach to familiar topics, so look out for the opening of their dedicate Quentin Blake gallery in 2016 and show about female comic book artists. Forensics and crime fascinated us first at the Wellcome’s utterly brilliant Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, shortly followed by the Museum of London’s The Crime Museum Uncovered which runs till March. Finally Somerset House struck gold with its fantastic retrospective The Jam: About the Young Idea which took a fan-friendly approach to examine their glory years.

Sticking with the music theme in 2016, the British Library will profile the history of Punk at a new exhibition combining its document and sound archive which promises to be quite innovative, while it also host its first major show dedicated to Shakespeare looking at the interpretation and influence of his work in 10 key performances to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death. They also have a free show looking at the image of Alice in Wonderland on display right now (review to follow next week).  The V&A have a big show about Boticelli while the National Portrait Gallery take up the fashion mantle with an exhibition of Vogue images which bodes well. The Royal Academy brings several classics together including Monet and Matisse to examine the evolution of the garden in painting, while the Barbican gets us thinking about being British in a show using the perspective of international photographers on our great nation.

Finally the London Film Festival showcased some of the best films of the year with some glitzy premiere opportunities. Opening with the excellent Suffragette, there was also Black Mass a less glamorised gangster film than we’ve seen in years attended by Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch, Carol attended by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (although it wasn’t to my taste), the rather strange High Rise with Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller, and best of all the closing night gala, the brilliant Steve Jobs attended by Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender – my ultimate 2015 highlight. But outside the festival, with Spectre letting me down somewhat, Fassbender also wowed in my film of the year – Macbeth, a gripping, glorious and breath-taking movie that a gave fresh interpretation while perfectly relaying the psychology of the play, film perfection in fact. Expect all of these films to end up walking away with plenty of awards in the next few months.

So there you have it, as we say goodbye to a glorious year for culture we have high hopes for 2016. Whether it can top the plethora of great opportunities we’re leaving behind remains to be seen, so let’s find out…

For reviews of London plays, exhibitions and culture follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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