Tag Archives: Ralph Fiennes

Four Quartets – Harold Pinter Theatre

Translating poetry to the stage can be challenging for both performer and audience, the importance of the language while alive and vivid on the page can feel verbose or intangible, even static, when read aloud. Get it wrong and it can feel stilted and incomprehensible, get it right, even with the most complex poetic imagery, and it can be a magical, inclusive experience that takes us back to the simplest and most pure forms of communication – a single person telling a story. And of course, much will depend on the verse that’s being adapted; whether it contains multiple characters given distinct voices who can be dramatised even within someone else’s narrative, or whether it is a singular collection of thoughts, impressions and philosophies through which the speaker moves alone or in conversation with the silent reader.

The National Theatre produced a marvellous version of Under Milk Wood earlier this year, arguable a radio play for voices but still poetic in vocal style in which Director Lyndsey Turner gave a deep emotional resonance to Dylan Thomas’s words by pitching it as a memory play, wrapping the central poem in a wider narrative about reconnection between a father and son. Ralph Fiennes’s adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a tougher proposition with no storyline as such, only the protagonist-poet reflecting, like Thomas’s piece, on the relationship between past, present and future, as well as the existence of history and the changing seasons in a thoughtful one man show.

Opening at the Theatre Royal Bath earlier in the year and arriving at the Harold Pinter Theatre after a brief tour, Four Quartets is not quite a play but more than a dramatic reading, and, across 80 rather swift minutes, Fiennes extracts the many changes of tone and pace, as well as shifts in energy across Eliot’s work that give the show a dramatic purpose and propulsion. While there is no need to understand every phrase, there is a lovely clarity to the questions that the poet is posing about the nature and circularity of time that carries the audience through the knotty reflections as the traveller explores some kind of meaning for his existence in the present.

In doing so, he reaches for a multitude of examples from the physical and very tangible reality of nature in the rose garden where the poem begins, through to familiar references to particular London locations as he imagines the dark trying to creep through Camden, Hampstead and Clerkenwell, while Edgeware Road is mentioned later. The contrast between nature and the city is a frequent refrain, with these earthier matters balanced against grander explorations of man’s place in a wider philosophy of existence that looks to gods and creation as well as religious duty and understanding.

Drawing these strands into a coherent theatre piece is certainly difficult especially as each poem was constructed separately before and during the Second World War, where it would be tempting, perhaps even terribly obvious, to stage them in the guise of Eliot himself reading the works he created and drawing allusions with the changing political and military circumstances in Europe. Just as The Wasteland is associated with the disillusion after the First World War (although not in Eliot’s view), so too could Four Quartets be interpreted as a direct reaction to the shadow of death and destruction sweeping the continent at the time of writing in which he reinforces a certain patriotic notion of green and pleasant England.

Fiennes, who co-adapts with James Dacre, however chooses to make this dramatisation independent of the work’s original creative context and instead places it in a visual no-man’s land, dominated by two giant stone blocks that seem like tombstones which he rotates and moves to signify shifts between the four poems. The rest of the set designed by Hildegard Bechtler has just two chairs and a table which, in a show he has also directed, gives Fiennes places to move around, changing height and location while using the empty seat to indicate the mystical past or future.

Each segment of the production has its own individual style, opening with the gentler reflections of Burnt Norton written in 1936 which places the speaker in his garden musing on the circularity of existence, not only the cyclical seasons that affect the visual and aural cues of the landscape as well as the scents he detects, but also the merging of past, present and future into a single moment. Here Fiennes beautifully conjures the physicality of the garden, relishing Eliot’s colourful rendering of the warm autumn night, the bird the speaker chases and the dark brown pool at its centre.

There are tones of the Romantics in Burnt Norton, of a mind absorbing the beauty of nature but distracted, even abstracted, by the wider concerns of life and its meaning, a sense of old and new worlds colliding and how humanity can make sense of it. In delivery, Fiennes gives these debates a richness, pausing to let each thought settle before pursuing the next line, and while it can be difficult in a one-man show not to race through without the safety of other actors to ease the burden and pressure of audience expectation, here Fiennes is entirely at ease with the space, letting the words fill the auditorium and unafraid of the silence in between where Eliot leaves room for meaning to emerge.

The second poem, East Coker from 1939 opens with the famous phrase ‘in the beginning is my end’, a refrain that recurs throughout this chapter of the show, momentarily reflecting Ecclesiastes’ A Time for Everything, with several lines based on the same ‘there is a time to’ sentence structure in its consideration of the most appropriate time to live, for the wind to blow and for building homes. Again, Eliot draws associations between the grandness of the natural landscape being enveloped and the ‘underground train, in the tube, [that] stops too long between stations’ as passengers confront their mortality for a fraction of a second. And this is something which Fiennes and Dacre’s adaptation does well, emphasising the fragile structures of humanity against the elements, all facing a similar process of death and rebirth.

But Eliot here is also interested in darkness and as the lights slowly dim in the theatre, Fiennes employs an effectual full blackout to recite the passages in which the late November night consumes the living, referencing death and silence as the wealthy and influential go the same way as everyone else regardless of their status. It’s a haunting moment and not repeated, reinforcing the power of Eliot’s words to create strong impressions and images in the collective mind of the audience in what is a momentarily immersive effect.

The Dry Salvages is perhaps the most dramatic segment, focusing as it does on the allusion of man and the sea, the remoteness of the city-dweller from the vivid brown water of the river and the notion of allowing a life to drift until it is cast upon the rocks. There is much here for Fiennes to draw out in the performance from the onomatopoeic reading of ‘soundless wailing’ to the low ring of a naval bell in the distance, the creation of atmosphere around the third of the quartets is particularly enjoyable, gently guiding the audience through the changing imagery.

This segment also considers man’s desire to predict the future and the need to think ahead or look to the past rather than live in the present. Given the context of war at the end of 1940 when this poem was composed, Eliot is exploring notions of spiritualism and destiny that bring comfort and meaning to the powerless. Fiennes articulates this section particularly well as Eliot talks of conversing with spirits, horoscopes, omens and tea leaves as natural reactions in moments of distress, extending his overall thesis about the intersection of different time periods and the spaces between them that we fail to recognise or understand.

The finale of the quartet is entitled Little Gidding and is built around the soothing notion that ‘all will be well’ which recurs throughout. Written in 1942, Eliot is again drawn back to imagery of the English countryside and the garden, as he was with Burnt Norton, referencing burnt roses and ash which gives a balance and completeness to the Four Quartets as a performance as well as a poetry collective, underscoring once again Eliot’s emphasis on the cycles and destructive effect of time as humanity fights for survival.

This section also gives Fiennes his only chance to play a second character as it contains a story of two strangers meeting on the road, one huddled from the cold as the actor sinks into his jacket while the other is commanding like a god or powerful spirit urging transformation in the other. Their interchange, which is well dramatised here, sets-up the remainder of the poem exploring the compression or relativity of time, acquainting the lifecycle of a yew tree and a rose while noting that ‘history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.’ And just like that, it’s over

None of these separate poems are named in the piece and Fiennes never overtly indicates the change between them in what becomes a continual monologue. Instead, the rhymes and indeed the separate verses within them are punctuated by music and Tim Lutkin’s often spectacular changes of light, the turning of the stone tablets and the actor relocating around the stage. And while that may sound overly self-conscious, it flows effortlessly between Eliot’s thoughts – we may not fully understand or spend time investigating all of the complex imagery in the piece but the emotional range of it is reflected in both the staging and Fiennes’s changing delivery.

In fact, the actor delivers a quite mesmeric performance, drawing out the nuances of tone, emphasis and imagery with a crisp clarity. Fiennes is always at ease with complex language and linguistic structure which has made him such a great performer of Shakespeare and Ibsen, and here he takes a piece that ordinarily exists as a collection of words on the page and only comes alive in the imagination, and gives it an expressiveness that is almost like dance, helping the words move around the auditorium with a power and resonance that becomes quite beguiling.

Four Quartets is perhaps more an experience than a performance, a series of musings and philosophical wonderings that grip as often as they elude. But Fiennes and Dacre have made this more than an intellectual exercise, and while its intangibility can be frustrating, even puzzling, there is real feeling and purpose to the application of a dramatic construct that makes Eliot’s poetry come alive on stage.

Four Quartets is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 December with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Beat the Devil – Bridge Theatre

 

Beat the Devil - Bridge Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

The Bridge Theatre is the first West End venue to offer socially-distanced indoor performances, welcoming audiences back to their still beautiful space with a series of what are essentially one-man shows between now and late October before deciding whether to resume their pre-advertised autumn season with Marianne Elliott’s take on They Shoot Horses Don’t They currently scheduled for November. The first short play opens this week with David Hare staking first claim to what will surely be a new genre or at least a familiar theme in the coming months – the Covid monologue. As an established white, middle class, male playwright Hare is in a better position that most to get his plays staged and for some this new work will epitomise tension between the politics of the theatre and the separate quality of the play.

Considering Beat the Devil is the story of a writer who contracts Covid-19, the safety measures in place at the Bridge Theatre are stringent and reassuring. Audience members are not only issued with digital tickets (which can be printed), but to control the flow of people through the foyer and auditorium each ticket will specify a recommended arrival time to allow audiences to reach their seats while passing as few people as possible. There is a socially distanced queue into the venue as well as a thermal camera checking everyone’s temperature, a one way system, hand sanitiser and ushers reminding attendees to keep their face covering in place throughout.

The auditorium itself has always benefited from plenty of individually fixed rather than long banks of seating so the Bridge Theatre team have extracted any chairs not in use to ensure that seats are socially distanced in blocks of two or three with a few singles if you are fast enough to find them. So unlike the older West End theatres such as the Palladium where Andrew Lloyd Webber had to block-off seats using antimacassars printed with an X, the physical flexibility of the Bridge removes any possibility that audiences members can change places during the performance. Just as with Regent’s Park, you really couldn’t feel safer.

David Hare is a renowned political playwright although his most recent work has not attracted the unerring critical praise of his most celebrated plays. The hugely disappointing I’m Not Running at the National Theatre in 2018 suffered from hollow characterisation in a not entirely credible Labour leadership contest scenario while his detective series Collaterol had some interesting narratives but wasn’t quite able to pull its various strands together. Yet prior to these Hare scored notable successes with high quality adaptations of George Simenon’s The Red Barn (2016) and the 2015 Young Chekhov trilogy at Chichester and the National. But Beat the Devil is for many reasons his most personal play in years, exploring his own experience of the disease while charting the political course of the pandemic.

Creating fictionalised versions of themselves is something writers often do, from Proust’s protagonist in In Search of Lost Time recalling scenes from the author’s younger days to the active entry of Laura Wade into the middle of The Watsons as the frustrated writer trying to get the characters inherited from Jane Austen to behave, there are many biographical elements to be sought in the output of novelists and playwrights. And while this is often left to the academics of English Literature and Theatre Studies to debate, Hare removes ambiguity and guesswork by making Beat the Devil a systematic account of his experience of catching, suffering with and recovering from a disease that has affected millions of people around the world.

Structurally, this 50-minute show is a sequence of diary entries read aloud with touches of the retrospective dramatist’s omnipotence. So as the character of David discusses his symptoms or the government response to the pandemic, Hare allows some forethought to come in, his protagonist is both reliving and recounting the months of lockdown from a point of current safety, with the knowledge of his own survival and of later social or political events rather than an unfolding account. Hare indulges this side of his writing, creating a story in which the audience, the lead and the writer know the outcome and uses that sense of confederacy between us to insert facts about the disease and its effects that he could not have know at the time of his illness, as well the consequences of governmental decision-making in the ensuing months.

The result is a piece that relies on the audience’s knowledge of our very recent history, peppered with references to particular moments in which the nature of the pandemic and its management shifted, often for the worse, and the personalities who have been its public face. In one sense, Beat the Devil feels like an act of historical record where the physical effects of a worldwide epidemic were met, in Hare’s view, with gross political incompetence and, worse, inhumanity by our leaders. None of this is especially insightful or surprising to anyone living in the UK in recent months but Hare has captured it in a way that prevents that vagaries of time from eroding the day-by-day experience. Whether Beat the Devil has any future as a play is another matter – it is so topically rooted in the exact sequence of events, the people and the dramas of Spring/Summer 2020 it is hard to know whether anyone would care to revive or revisit the play in the years or decades to come when this government and Covid-19 itself is a distant memory.

Whatever your expectations, Hare does a convincing job of representing himself onstage and the play has an intimate warmth that quickly creates a strong bond with the audience. Its very best moments recount the progressive experience of illness, the little anecdotes and unexpected developments that have made this such a difficult disease to control, and as Hare speaks with candour about the false lightness of the first week, the fuzzy lungs, nights sweats and delirium followed by uncontrollable vomiting, worries about mortality, physical frailty and sudden return to consciousness you can have nothing but empathy for anyone who seems to have experienced its full impact or close to it.

What is surprising is just how comic Hare’s voice is in retelling these experiences and wry humour is not one of the most pronounced traits in his earlier work. But in Beat the Devil Hare allows much more of his own personality to emerge and, it turns out, he is pretty sarcastic, taking pots shots not just at the every-growing list of government failings and its inexplicably weak personnel, but also at himself as he recalls the quirks of personality and amusing examples of contradictory behaviour. Refusing to go to hospital at the height of his sickness is because, he quips, wards are full of people with Covid, while eventually emerging from the disease his over-emphatic delight in the taste of water and frustration with the behaviour of men in action movies leave him shouting at the television. Running through the show from beginning to end is a lightly sardonic humour as the character of David finds incredulity at every turn, perhaps this is another long-term effect of the disease, Covid makes you funny.

Hare hasn’t entirely dispensed with his old habits though and one of Beat the Devil’s more frustrating elements is the clunky insertion of facts which crop up repeatedly. It is a frequent problem for the one-man show (and some multi-person political pieces), and whether the performer is re-enacting the life of Judy Garland, highlighting the effects of homelessness or discussing Covid, it is very difficult to make the recitation of facts feel like natural speech. Partly this is because conversation just doesn’t happen like this either in your own head or with an interlocutor, and, given the structural premise here, statistical facts are not something personal diary keepers tend to record.

These are, of course, Hare’s soapbox moments, an irresistible opportunity to reiterate government incompetence, death rates, the disproportionate effects of the illness on ethnic minorities and the failure to sufficiently support the NHS, all of which occasional feel like he’s trying too hard. And facts in an ongoing situation can be slippery, quickly making a play feel dated (and therefore not worthy of revival) if science discovers that the make-up of the disease is not what we think it is, or that its impacts on particular groups were not as disproportionate as first thought. But here, they make the play feel heavy-handed and while Hare is clearly impassioned and not necessarily wrong-headed, these moments feel more like acerbic stand-up than theatre, places where Hare the writer and David the character are detrimentally indistinct.

Since up-ending his serious romantic lead image with In Bruges in 2008, Ralph Fiennes has been able to reveal his comic side with roles in God of Carnage (2008) as well as Man and Superman (2015) alongside more serious projects. Here, his timing is wonderful, guiding the flow of Hare’s words to their humorous crescendo, making the jokes feel freshly minted and unrehearsed while subtly adding gestures or facial expressions that boost the comic power of the moment. These are used sparing so they don’t detract from or unbalance Hare’s more serious points, but Fiennes strikes an excellent balance between light and shade within the production.

His performance is one of the big draws of Beat the Devil, imbuing his character with plenty of charisma and a winning charm. Fiennes is an actor with the rare ability to hold a big room in the palm of his hands and make it seem effortless. Anyone who saw his Antony in 2018 alongside Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra will wonder at the Olivier Theatre’s formidable reputation as Fiennes stood alone on its vast stage to deliver Antony’s suicide speech in captivating style. The Bridge Theatre is equally sizeable and speaking to the threadbare audience permitted by the regulations, his debut appearance on this stage is a hugely successful one.

Much of the warmth and humanity in this piece comes from Fiennes’s performance and this ability to create connection with the room, reaching out across the vast space and socially distanced community to create a collective experience. It is a big ask for an actor to be alone on stage for almost an hour, a hugely exposing experience and one that many long-established actors will not be used to, but he finds the subtleties within the piece, the periods of flow and directional movement, using the chapter-markers to regroup as Hare shifts the time frame.  Most importantly, Fiennes keeps the audience there in the story with him as it segues between political rants, building the comic chain of events and fusing the elements of the show together as a single consistent character experience.

You won’t necessarily leave Beat the Devil thinking it was the finest play you have ever seen or even that Hare deserves this vast platform to tell his own story – the cultural tides are shifting so fast at the moment that any number of voices could arguably have used these resources to make the theatre landscape more equitable. But neither is Hare’s play an unmitigated travesty and there is much to take away from the show. Political theatre is there to hold the Establishment to account and Hare uses his personal journey to consider the management of the pandemic. The diagnosis for Hare and for the UK may have been spookily aligned, but while the writer has recovered, the country may not.

Beat the Devil is at The Bridge Theatre until 31st October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Antony and Cleopatra – National Theatre

Anthony and Cleopatra - National Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review of the Year and What to See in 2017

Image result for 2017

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.  


%d bloggers like this: