Tag Archives: Rory Kinnear

Force Majeure – Donmar Warehouse

Force Majeure - Donmar Warehouse (by Marc Brenner)

Force Majeure, a random act of God that cannot be predicted or measured that entirely disrupts planned activity, something we can all appreciate a little better in the past two years, certainly as force majeure has caused significant delay to Tim Price’s play of the same name. Originally scheduled for 2020, Covid struck again in late 2021 when the production was forced to close because company members tested positive and had to isolate, cancelling the show’s original Press Night. Returning to the stage between Christmas and New Year, not even a random act of God can save this slightly underwhelming production whose staging choices place spectacle over narrative purpose and audience engagement.

Based on a two hour movie by Ruben Östlund, the play Force Majeure brings across some interesting themes about human behaviour under extreme pressure and, in the wake of natural disasters, begins a philosophical debate about the ‘correct’ instinctual response when something goes unexpectedly wrong. When father of two Tomas abandons his family and is seen running away from an avalanche at an exclusive ski resort, it sets in motion a chain of events that affect his marriage and the opinion of his children and friends.

Across 2.5 hours, Force Majeure unpicks Tomas’s instinctive response and the consequences, mixing fraught family drama with this more abstract discussion of nature, the protective instinct and the ‘right’ response when making a split-second decision. So far, so interesting, but Price’s adaptation instead becomes overly repetitive with the central family having several versions of the same conversation with each other and then with their late-arriving pals who miss the main event. While we get a sense of Tomas’s actions as an emotional turning point that no one can let go, it makes for stodgy drama as the plot stalls with even a major pre-interval revelation leaving the audience wondering what could be left to say in the final hour.

Part of the problem is a series of short scenes that work fine in the cinema where quick cutaways create drive and direction but in the theatre require clunky scene changes to take the characters to new locations without developing the depth of perspective that makes you care about the individuals or properly pushes them to explore and justify their behaviours. In adapting the film, Price also takes each scene round in circles, having individuals say the same thing several times or carry on a particular joke a beat too long, making the plot feel overly laboured while sacrificing any serious development for the central family.

This static drama is very noticeable in the first half of the play where – aside from an energetic opener and the drama of the avalanche careering towards the trapped family – over an hour of subsequent talking is taken up almost exclusively by the question of whether father Tomas ran away from rather than seeking to protect his wife and kids. And the characters have multiple versions of the same discussion for the rest of the play – Tomas denying it and claiming Ebba’s perception of the event is misconstrued, Ebba equally adamant about what she saw. They talk about it as family, the couple argue about it when they are alone and they talk to strangers as well as friend Mats and his girlfriend Jenny, going over and over and over the same ground with neither yielding. By the time the interval arrives, it is increasingly difficult to care about this fractious family and their endless, somewhat stagey, arguments.

Price also begins Act Two in a similar fashion with Mats and new, much younger girlfriend Jenny debating the same issue as they take sides resulting in judgements about their own personalities. It is a scene intended to be comic as Mats agonises about the reflections on his character and late-night refusal to drop it and go to sleep. Their mutual exasperation is funny to a point but several minutes into the scene, the repeated scenario becomes tiresome, willing them to go to bed so we and the play (with another hour to run) can move on.

What we never get is a proper sense of why these people behave as they do and the pre-existing context that might make their reactions more explicable. Information is relatively basic, Tomas and Ebba’s marriage was already on the rocks, Mats had left his first wife and is now dating Jenny who is blithely and unquestioningly accepted despite being 20-years his junior, while Tomas and Ebba’s son implies some form of behavioural issue that requires careful management and intense parental attention, yet none of this is fully explored within the play and in asking the viewer to just accept the circumstances without deeper consideration misses an opportunity to ground the collective hysteria and avoidance of the truth in a much wider story about relationships, family and work pressure that has created a deep fissure waiting for almost any excuse to give way – the aftermath of the avalanche becoming a proxy for the true cause of and excuse for disharmony.

The single-issue focus of the story creates a feeling of dislocation between character and drama, so while Force Majeure builds to a moment of self-realisation and a consequential clearing of the decks, it is difficult to feel emotionally invested in the individuals in any meaningful way. That is partly a question of staging but also of tone, and Michael Longhurst is never quite sure if he is directing a comedy or a drama, eliciting laughs in some of the play’s more incisive moments. Like The Boss of It All and Another Round, Scandinavian dramas often have a particular blackly comic style that mixes irreverence with an oddball quality that allows a tragi-comic feel to emerge, and throughout Force Majeure there is a sense that a similar piece is trying to escape but the show is yet to find that balance, lost in the overwritten nature of the scenes and the slightly choppy drama that prevents any momentum from growing.

This is further exacerbated by the Donmar’s peculiar staging decision, building a ski slope that allows for a couple of very stylish moments as supporting cast members project themselves diagonally down the stage, but with the whole design facing forward, it loses opportunities to play to the wraparound-style auditorium particularly when the vast majority of scenes are based in bars, hotel rooms and cafes that are not on the mountain at all. The Donmar is a rare venue with no truly restricted views – there are side views in both the Stalls and Circle that sometimes put the audience’s eyeline behind the actors for a time, but all seats are close to the stage with clear, unobstructed sightlines.

So, in a venue with three sides and an apron stage, it seems ludicrous to build a piece of staging that creates quite severely restricted views for anyone sitting in the side Stalls (usually some of the best seats). Yet designer Jon Bausor has created a slope that increases in gradient towards the back of the stage meaning these audience members are unable to see the stage floor, can barely see the actors when they are sitting on the slope itself, often have views obscured by furniture or other actors blocking their colleagues and spend most of the action staring at the sides of a furry ramp. Only the straight-on Stalls seats will see a full view. Stylish it may be, memorable certainly and prices have been reduced accordingly but these choices do very little to enhance the experience of the play or particularly reflect its locations and context.

It is notable how often audience experience is sacrificed to design and directorial preference, and with the top critics usually given the most advantageous (and ergo most expensive) seats, the problems of restricted view seating has been given very little profile. In older theatre buildings, the curvature of the room and the existence of pillars just cannot be avoided, yet theatremakers rarely sit in these seats to watch their own show from these unusual angles – it might alter their choices if they did. Someone spending £10 on a ticket doesn’t love or understanding theatre any less that someone spending £70 nor do they necessarily prefer a vertiginous view of a far away story, it is an economic decision based on affordability and it shouldn’t mean their enjoyment or ability to see a show is any less worthy. Venues could do more to reasonably accommodate the known restrictions, for example by not setting too many scenes at the sides of the stage – particularly now when £70 may only get you a seat in the balcony in some places.

To purposefully create viewing limitations in an otherwise intimate theatre is baffling, and Force Majeure suffers from forcing a proscenium arch design that plays in only one direction into a three-sided auditorium that cuts visibility for a quarter of its audience. There is very little benefit to these staging choices and while the cross-ramp skiing is impressive and unusual, there must have been multiple other possibilities for a story set largely indoors. For once the Circle is probably the best place to see this production and even the £10 seats here will offer a superior experience to the side Stalls.

Among the performances, Rory Kinnear and Lyndsey Marshall are always worth seeing and while their characters offer relatively little substance, the actors find the emotional depths of Ebba’s blind fury and disgust with her husband that Marshall subtly suggests gives her the excuse she needs to finally leave while Kinnear’s blank effrontery is both wounded and embarrassed, sometimes hiding a deeper purpose and half believing his own nonsense. Sule Rimi as Mats and the excellent Siena Kelly, fresh from her triumphant Maggie in ETT’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, add some much needed relief from the claustrophobic family drama, offering convincing depth in their comedy side roles.

Nonetheless, Force Majeure feels like a missed opportunity for a tighter, more philosophical drama about different forms of self-preservation in the face of natural disasters and how these are conditioned by the fears or phobias we carry around with us. We all wear masks everyday, desperate to hide our weaknesses and foibles from others, and it is only in these moments of great crisis that they fall away and a raw nature is revealed. That tight character study was the focus Force Majeure really needed and, in staging this play, remembering that the audience experience should matter, whatever you’ve paid for your ticket.

Force Majeure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 5 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Film Review: Peterloo

Peterloo by Mike Leigh

As we think more carefully about the way we take our rights and freedoms for granted, political representation and the will of the people are topics that rear their head again and again. A hundred years since the campaign for women’s suffrage resulted in partial success, the quest for electoral rights for working men began more than a century before that as post-industrialisation Britain experienced a growth in manufacturing cities and, combined with increased literacy rates, meant the nineteenth-century was characterised by petitions and protests to extend the franchise.

One important step on the road to universal suffrage was arguably the Peterloo “massacre” of 1819 – a peaceful gathering in Manchester, the culmination of a campaign of oratory and political meetings held in the taverns and factories of the industrial north. By no means the first such assembly, and certainly not the last, Peterloo is pivotal because of the panic it created amongst the ruling elite, a panic which meant the local militia shed the blood of its own civilians, killing 15 and injuring over 600 men, women and children. Surprising then that it has taken so long for a single film to be dedicated to this important incident at St Peter’s Field, dubbed “Peterloo” by the media forevermore.

Mike Leigh’s 2.5 hour film which premiered in Manchester as part of the London Film Festival and opens in cinemas on Friday is a multi-stranded exploration of the various lives, professions and tensions that lead into the powder keg that was Peterloo. This should have been a definitive depiction, like Zulu or even Suffragette, the one film that would represent this event on celluloid and raise greater awareness of its importance, but Leigh’s film is too disparate, overlong and definitely overly-earnest, focusing more on generic depictions of working-class life with people peeling potatoes on their doorsteps. Beyond the outrage, rather crucially, it tells us remarkably little about the importance of Peterloo.

As the film opens, a couple of men, a canon and some smoke are an approximation of Waterloo in 1815, from which a single soldier is left standing. We imagine as this red-coated and clearly shell-shocked young man returns home to Lancashire that this will be his story, that we will follow him and his family through a series of events that will culminate at Peterloo four years later. This is only partially true and instead Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, widens his lens to consider some of the factory workers who run political discussion groups, a local newspaper editor, the occasional female emancipation club, musicians, families, local magistrates, the King and orator Henry Hunt who becomes the star attraction.

The downside of this approach, though clearly well researched and scrupulously adhering to the primary sources, creates a laboured story, scenes of working-class life at an almost documentary level without ever drawing them together to make a consistent point about the causes and consequences of Peterloo. There is some wince-inducing dialogue to explain the Corn Laws and Habeas Corpus, and Leigh spends far too long in the build-up – more than two hours of the film – without really generating the kind of combustible tension that is needed to drive the drama. The crucial meeting itself is interesting and very well filmed but confined to about 20 minutes (the alleged time it took for the army to clear the field), much of which are shots of people waiting in anticipation for Hunt to arrive or the in-fighting between the magistrates which leaches tension from proceedings.

When the soldiers eventually arrive and the action sequences begin, they are poignant and brutal, dramatically if not politically satisfying, making-up for much of the film’s slow pace thereto. But in a way the brevity of this moment arguably doesn’t live up to the subsequent tales of slaughter and carnage that history has recorded. Partially this is because Leigh is so heavy-handed in his management of the story, so determined to make a political statement that the early sections are like being spoon-fed castor oil for two hours, you know it’s good for you but you don’t really enjoy it.

While Leigh focuses consistently on the various parties and lives to be affected by Peterloo, there is little overall sense of what it meant, both as a milepost on the way to wider enfranchisement and as a change in the relationships between government and the governed in Britain. Although we are given a clear sense of the politicisation of the working-class on a small scale through the meetings and pamphlets shown in the film, the wider context (other than its proximity to Waterloo in date only) is almost entirely missing, a choice that feels deliberate in order to retain maximum sympathy for the characters Leigh specifically wants us to admire for their self-sacrificing and entirely innocent role in the event.

To attempt to understand something is not at all the same things as excusing it, and we learn nothing about the motivations of the magistrates, army and local government officials who almost inexplicably attack their own people. In reality, the years leading up to the August meeting in St Peter’s Field were full of instability and fear. Napoleon may have been defeated but the long shadow of the French Revolution lingered as our nearest neighbours vacillated between monarchy and various-forms of army-led republicanism. It created a culture of fear within the English ruling-class that contributed to the great nervousness with which the planned arrival of 60,000 people in a confined space was received.

While Leigh’s film goes to great lengths to demonstrate that protesters were unarmed at nothing more than a summer fare – a scenario Hunt insisted on as key speaker – and reflected in the film by an arch rabble-rouser ordering the men to disarm themselves of cudgels and sticks before they march to the assembly, in context, several violent uprisings had occurred in recent times, as well as mill and factory equipment being smashed throughout the north by the Luddites in the years either side of Waterloo, so there was little reason for the authorities to think there wouldn’t be some who could used this meeting to forward a more aggressive agenda.

None of this justifies the events of Peterloo or the unwarranted brutality of the official response, but as vital context it is entirely missing from a film that somewhat extracts it characters from their period, an era in which a loathed Prince Regent was deputising for a mad King, soldiers returned from war expecting reward, and a history of political agitation and public protest was laid out in a relatively newly established newspaper media. Democratic demands began to filter down from the ruling elite, who had enjoyed the public tussles of Charles James Fox and Pitt the Younger, surrounded by their aristocratic celebrity friends just a couple of decades before, to the hard-working men of Manchester and its environs.

By turning away from all of this with cartoonish depictions of the local government and courtly worlds, it drains meaning from the film. Leigh faithfully recreates the events from the perspective of particular groups right down to the small gestures recorded in the primary sources, yet the overall effect is wanting, as though a key piece of the jigsaw is missing. We see plenty of what, but we never see why. This is compounded by the lack of consequences, the movie just ends with injuries and arrests, the carnage of a battlefield mirroring the Waterloo scene at the start, but no on-screen information cards to tell us what happened to the individuals or the cause of electoral reform in the nineteenth-century.

Leigh explained in the ensuing Q&A that this was a purposeful choice so the audience can take any number of meanings from the film, whereas in fact it undermines it at the final moment. As one of the most significant events in working-class history it is vital to know that these events led directly to the formation of the unified political groups of the future including the Chartists whose own six-point manifesto has been the basis of many of our modern electoral rights, but its genesis was among the groups that attended Peterloo. It is also important to recognise that while the franchise was widened for property owning men in 1867 and 1884, it wasn’t until a hundred years after Peterloo that all men and some women could vote. This film not only fails to show us why Peterloo happened, but also why it became such an important marker in government-citizen relations.

The performances are largely good within the fairly two-dimensional parameters of most of the characters, and there are particularly impressive turns from Pearce Quigley as Joseph, a decent working man who fights against his disapproving wife Nellie (Maxine Peake) to stand up for the rights of his family, Philip Jackson as local campaigner John Knight, the ever-entertaining Karl Johnson as the Home Secretary a conduit for news between the protesters and Tim McInnerny’s grotesque Prince Regent. The film really only gets going when Rory Kinnear turns-up as Henry Hunt, a much-needed shot in the arm to plot development and pace. His Macbeth may have lacked danger, but Kinnear has a fantastic time here as the arrogant and charmless orator more in love with his fame and himself than any of the causes he speaks so passionately about. Hunt is the only character permitted shades of grey and despite an ennobled background, he’s clearly on the side of the angles in this production which forgives his failings. Everyone else is basically wholly good or wholly bad or cowardly.

Peterloo has some good sequences and arrives at a well-presented if all too short representation of the event, one which will provoke feelings of outrage and horror at the sight of British soldiers behaving as though there were at war and slicing at their own countrymen as if they were the enemy. For a few minutes, the film’s purpose is crystal clear and there is a visceral sense of the panic, barbarity and shame that the event has caused, earning its place in history. It is such a shame that its preamble is so drawn out and its dramatic structure poorly considered. There was always a good Peterloo film waiting to be made, but this isn’t it.

Peterloo was shown at the London Film Festival and is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 2 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Macbeth – National Theatre

Macbeth, National Theatre

Back in 2016 the Royal Shakespeare Company celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth with the televised variety show Shakespeare Live. In a lacklustre event, the chance pairing of Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear performing a scene from Macbeth was a highlight, leading to calls for them to appear in a full-length version of the play. Almost two years later, those calls have been answered by the National Theatre whose new production is one of their most anticipated shows of the year. But despite its enduring popularity, Macbeth is a slippery beast requiring a clear vision for interpreting its complex balance of supernatural influences, human ambition and evil. Many more versions fail than succeed, so does that mean Macbeth is the most difficult Shakespeare play to stage well?

Macbeth is far more than an action-packed story of murder and mayhem, and is one of Shakespeare’s most psychological plays. The central character takes a convoluted path through the story that takes him from loyalty and fealty at the start of the play, through ambition and murder, to doubt, insecurity and even mental delusion that grow into monstrous tyranny. Then, increasingly numbed by the events he sets in motion, Macbeth’s inner drive collapses as he gives himself over to his inevitable doom. It is by no means a linear path, and like a perfect waltz, the perfect Macbeth must contain rise and fall that guides the audience through the muddles of his mind.

Motivation is key to unlocking the play, and understanding why the Macbeths are suddenly driven to murder will shape the entire production. But for the psychology to make sense, a Company must decide three things; first what role the supernatural have in shaping the play’s outcomes – is Macbeth entirely driven by the witches’ prophecy, does fate or destiny or paranormal force inevitability determine his actions regardless of his own agency? Second, what is the balance of power in the Macbeths marriage, does Lady Macbeth force her unwilling husband to murder his friend, is she merely reflecting Macbeth’s own mind back to him, or is there an equality of purpose between them?

Finally, what is Macbeth’s own motivation? Shakespeare has frequently examined the corruptive nature of power and this play is one of his most chilling examples of dark humanity. So is he destroyed by his own human frailty, driven to act by a strange encounter on the blasted heath that stokes a fire he cannot possibly control? Perhaps instead he’s just greedy, a mercenary friend and soldier who sees a chance for personal advancement and takes it remorselessly? Or, a final possibility, is Macbeth just evil, a force of devilry who enjoys destruction for its own sake?

Unfortunately, the National Theatre’s new production, directed by Rufus Norris, hasn’t obviously made any of these choices and after two hours and 45 minutes of watchable and decently paced performance, the audience has learned nothing about the characters or the world they live in. There is plenty of intellectual engagement with the text and plenty of stage technique that attempts to fill the Olivier space, but you never really understand what is driving the Macbeths or how their post-Civil War world fits around the bloody deed.

Rae Smith’s set design and Moritz Junge’s costumes create a puzzle that never satisfactorily resolves the hierarchical nature of the society referenced in the play. While it is a clear attempt to introduce a new style of location – and here read post-Civil War to mean post-apocalyptic – the rag tag group of people in ripped jeans, combat boots and kneepads never quite convince as a feudal society devoted to the weak leadership of King Duncan dressed like Quentin Crisp on hard times. The aesthetic is dystopia, all concrete rooms and giant curtains made of ripped bin bags, which makes the cast seem like a feral band of guerrillas and a few drug addicts than a nation at war with itself. There is no sense of wider armies clashing in the distance, and it becomes increasingly impossible to reconcile how this grubby and fractured scene supports a system of monarchy and aristocracy. What exactly is the concept of kingship or even destiny in this world of concrete bunkers? And why do the Macbeths even do it, what is there to inherit apart from a red suit (steeped in the blood required to steal a monarchy), that wouldn’t look out of place on John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, and seemingly no other trappings of majesty, not even a better castle.

Smith’s design is consistent and even visionary, but it doesn’t bring meaning or clarity to the play. Practically, the giant, and rather steep, ramp that doubles for hills may dominate the stage and ensure that those in the Olivier circle can see action take place on a level closer to their eyeline, but the actors seem a little unsteady on it and it just gets in the way. Similarly, the ramp and the head witch’s necklace are covered in broken bits of baby dolls and Action Man figures strung together whose meaning is unclear, and it wasn’t until well into the second Act that it became clear that the tall pipes with a cascade of shredded bin bags on top were trees.

Unfortunately, the design adds nothing to the story its telling and barely makes sense. While there’s clearly lots of intended symbolism here, it’s not at all obvious what this is saying about the play. It is a common problem with staging Shakespeare particularly where a pointless period setting is chosen in lieu of making proper choices about the production’s angle on the story. A similar problem affected the RSC’s Cymbeline in 2016 who chose a comparable dystopian design that added very little. Sadly, Smith and Norris have confused putting Macbeth in strange setting with having a “take” on the play – they’re not quite the same thing.

This inconsistency of purpose feeds through into the performances as well, and as impressive as Rory Kinnear usually is, he doesn’t get under the skin of Macbeth at all. On this same stage in 2015, his Iago was one of the finest we’ve seen, but Iago is really a politician in a flak jacket and while Kinnear brings that element to his Macbeth, of an oily predator waiting for a chance to strike, he struggles to convey the true aggression of a trained soldier and, initially at least, a beloved leader of men.

Kinnear has a cerebral connection with the lines, he understands them and delivers them with his usual crisp diction and cadence, but there’s no choice about the kind of Macbeth he wants to be, no sense of a man cruelly battered by fate or setting out on a winding and uncharted path to destruction. There’s no sense of inevitability to his action and while there is a hint early on that this Macbeth relishes the idea of murdering his friend long before he talks to his wife, there is no clear depiction of the anguish, guilt and growing delusion of a man haunted by his earlier actions.

Kinnear just doesn’t have a point of view on his character and as the play wears on it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in his actions. He is an accomplished actor, but there’s something about this role that doesn’t sit right, he’s just not finding the layers of complexity or danger that drive Macbeth to greater and greater extremes. It’s sad to say that you just don’t believe him, whether he’s clutching for invisible daggers or fighting to the death with McDuff, it doesn’t feel credible.

By contrast, Anne-Marie Duff’s restrained and nervy Lady Macbeth towers over the production, and while she’s given very little to work against, Duff brings a desperation to her from the start, clearly suggesting a woman who’s taken all she can and grasps a chance to escape the mire with tear-stained joy.

Her agitated state is a characteristic that Duff sews through the performance, and even when Lady Macbeth must act decisively to cover-up her husband’s mistakes, her moments of courage come from a place of fear rather than evil, which makes her descent into madness credible. There’s little sense of who they are as a couple and their tribulations prior to the start of the play, but Duff allows flickers of repulsion and determination to cross her face in the feast scene as the former connection between man and wife is irrevocably broken.

There are some notable performances from the surrounding cast, including Patrick O’Kane who finds a burning fire in his angry and vengeful McDuff, and while the final confrontation with Macbeth does look a bit like Phil and Grant Mitchell having a barney, O’Kane channels McDuff’s sense of outraged nationhood and personal grief effectively. Stephen Boxer’s Duncan adds gravitas to the early scenes, speaking the verse with a regality that suggests respect despite his inability to act as a military leader.

The interpretation of the witches makes each one slightly different as they shriek their predictions like eerie sirens, but while Beatrice Scirocchi, Anna-Maria Nabirye and Hannah Hutch perform well, their role in the story feels uncertain, and the production has little to say about the nature and influence of superstition on human behaviour.

Norris’s direction keeps the pace moving and utilises the Olivier revolve well to bleed events into one another. And, if you’ve never seen Macbeth before then you may not notice the absence of purpose, because it is a perfectly watchable interpretation that on the surface relays the events of the story with clarity in an unusual new setting. The trouble is Macbeth can be so much more than this.

When done well, it can be a shocking, spine-tingling story that fascinates and repels in equal measure, that can send you home chilled to the bone by its vision of human darkness and the cycle of despair it sets in motion. The spectre of Justin Kurzel’s 2015 movie looms large over this production and while film offers different challenges, it made strong and interesting choices that brought psychological clarity to the story in a fresh and exciting way. All of this was then fed through every aspect of the film unifying performance, costume, setting and music to deliver a Macbeth of raw power and intensity. Yet, so rarely does this transfer to the stage.

Despite the early announcement of a tour in the autumn, and with no time to rethink before tomorrow’s Press Night, this Macbeth is a huge missed opportunity, which, despite its impressive cast and considerable resource, has little to say. Here at the National, as with many other attempts, the production vision lacks real purpose and fails to engage with the complex motivation of Macbeth himself, leaving him and us nowhere to go.

Macbeth is at the National Theatre until 23 June, tickets start at £15 and Macbeth is part of the Friday Rush scheme. Macbeth will be broadcast via NT Live on 10 May, and a UK and Ireland tour will begin in September with a cast to be confirmed. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturacap1


Young Marx – Bridge Theatre

Young Marx, Bridge Theatre by Manuel Harlan

Once you’ve been the head of one of the most respected and well-known theatres in London, what can you possibly do next? Well, apparently you take everything you’ve learned, head beyond the Southbank and Bankside to create your very own purpose-built theatre amidst the new bars and restaurant around City Hall. After announcing the project more than a year ago and frequent pictorial updates on its construction, Nicholas Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre is now officially open for business next to Tower Bridge, with its first play Young Marx already looking extremely solid ahead of its press night later this week.

As much charm as there is in our Victorian theatres, their size and facilities were built for a different age, so a brand new theatre means more comfortable seats made for normal-sized people, the chance to create decent sight-lines from every vantage point, and most importantly more than two ladies toilets per floor. Happily, the Bridge has all these things, in fact the auditorium is almost a carbon copy of the Dorfman at the National, only bigger, and despite the crush in the foyer, this has the potential to become a great social and cultural space.

Its inaugural performance is a new play by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman about the less well-known younger years of Karl Marx. We think of Marx these days as an old man with a big beard writing dry economic theory and giving 70s historians concepts to try and fit the past into. Bean and Coleman’s vision couldn’t be further from this image, and instead this Marx is a bit of a scoundrel, careering around Soho, pawning anything he can get his hands on, hiding from the bailiffs and exasperating his long-suffering family.

Marx, his wife and two children are hiding in 1850s London from their Prussian persecutors unable to ever return to Germany. Living in penury in a shabby two room apartment in Soho, Marx has more pressing concerns; he’s expected to start an anti-capitalist revolution but can’t write while he spends all his time trying to quell the violent tendencies of The Communist League, visiting all 18 pubs on Tottenham Court Road and hiding in a cupboard. But when secret information is revealed, Marx must uncover the spy in his midst, and, with the help of his old friend, Engels, finally write his masterwork currently titled ‘Economic Shit’.

Young Marx is an enjoyable cartoon caper, a delightful farce that also manages to be occasionally quite touching. Based on real events in his life, his Marx is a not-quite-so-lovable rogue who will make the audience despair as they’re laughing at each self-inflicted mess he gets himself into. But the play’s success is surrounding Marx with a colourful cast of radicals in The Communist League, friends and family that give a flavour of his life and the impact of his self-centred behaviour on those around him. Happily, this also includes two well-constructed roles for the women in his life, his wife Jenny and their maid Nym.

Bean and Coleman’s play also avoids many of the tiresome Dickensian clichés which have become such a lazy shorthand for any aspect of poverty in the Victorian era, giving the whole thing a thrumming life of its own, allowing it to maintain an infectious energy throughout, which Mark Thompson’s hyper-real revolving set supports extremely well. He may live in a little more than a squat, consorting with pawnbrokers and vagabonds, but Marx feels like a thoroughly modern man, deeply flawed and entirely human, but with a force of nature, a chemistry that, despite their better judgement, has other people dancing to his tune.

And this feels really relevant to the way we glorify and accept the failings of our own celebrities, with poor behaviour and diva demands written-off as “artistic temperament”. The idea that someone’s genius – be it intellectual or creative – is worth the price of their arrogance, entitlement and inability to accept that codes of decency apply to them, is one that feels especially pertinent at the moment in the wake of revelations about the misuse of power by TV personalities and Hollywood moguls that have come to light in recent years. In these examples, and beneath the comic gloss of the play, is an important central question about what we are and should be willing to forgive just because someone happens to sing or pontificate especially well.

As Marx, Rory Kinnear balances all of these competing characteristics, offering a portrait of a reprobate economic theorists whose every thought is about anti-capitalist revolution or having a good time himself. Even preparing breakfast for the family he lets down again and again, becomes a lecture on the provenance of a sausage. But Kinnear’s skill is in wrapping all of this in a perfectly-timed comic shell, keeping the tone light and breezy most of the time, and landing the more emotional moments at just the right pitch.

Marx is not a man you’re asked to love or even respect, and Kinnear shows the audience that every hilarious encounter is also an example of him betraying, using or avoiding someone to get what he wants – if he was any richer he’d be an out-and-out cad. While Kinnear has focused on serious European theatre in the last couple of years with The Trial and The Threepenny Opera, it’s clear this role is the most fun he’s had, and arguably his best, since he played Iago at The National. He relishes every ounce of his carefree rascal, delivering put-downs with a whip-like severity and trampling over his loved ones… but then he has the rights of the worker to defend.

His partner “Freddie” Engels, played with charm by Oliver Chris, is a more responsible and self-aware contrast in the jokey Vaudevillian partnership of “Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx”, a frequently repeated refrain that binds them together. Engels role is largely to protect Marx from himself and clear up his messes, and the believable brotherhood Chris and Kinnear create is vital in accepting some of the plot’s later twists. But, Chris makes Engels more than a footnote in the story of his more famous friend, giving him both a lothario’s existence and a conscience that become the voice of reason in the play.

Again and again, Engels tries to encourage Marx to write, recognising his superior talent for expressing their political beliefs and inspiring others. His own background, sent to work in his family’s Manchester factory but with independent means, is used to show his own devotion to his friend and the sacrifices he is prepared to make to ensure Marx becomes the great man he is supposed to be, and Chris’s Engels is a sympathetic figure while also making the most of the comedy double-act.

Nancy Carroll’s Jenny is a suitably conflicted wife, furious with her husband’s lack of respect and failure to provide for his family, while also still being drawn to his revolutionary charisma. She’s part of the faction that meet to debate ideas and offers input into his writing, all the while remaining desirable to potential lovers. Laura Elphinstone as maid Nym is equally part of the family, supporting husband and wife while becoming increasingly drawn into the household dramas with a convincing sense of her own agency. Crucially, you believe both women exist when the men are not around.

It’s a large cast that add texture to a catalogue of comic incident among London’s immigrant population, easing us between Bean and Coleman’s delightfully surreal scenarios including a gloriously modern line for a policeman who is thanked for not hitting Marx and Engels when he catches them urinating in Soho Square, saying he’s been on a course. Interestingly, the family use German accents when speaking to someone English but the rest of the time talk in their own variations of British voices, adding to the idea of Marx as a bit of a geezer and neatly navigating the line between the perception of them as a West End foreign colony, but also that they’re just like us.

The Bridge Theatre’s opening performance is, then, a very entertaining night at the theatre and Hytner’s smooth direction ensures that the 2.5 hour run time doesn’t seem enough. It’s a bold and significant decision to christen this new space with a fresh play rather than a well-known classic, but one that pays-off handsomely. And with tickets from as little as £15, the trip to Tower Bridge is all the more worthwhile. Bean and Coleman will irrevocably alter your idea of Karl Marx with this charmingly cartoony comic caper; Communist economic theory has never been this much fun!

Young Marx is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 December and will be broadcast by NT Live on 7 December. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Trial – Young Vic

I’m not going to lie to you, this is a tough one. The Young Vic has had a string of award-winning successes in the past 12 months leading to West End and now Broadway transfers. Understandably then, there is a buzz about the place these days and most shows sell out fairly quickly. This adaptation of Kafka’s novel The Trial was all but gone even before the press night so confident are audiences in the quality of Young Vic productions. And of course the lure of Rory Kinnear cannot be underestimated either. He’s an actor that’s been in everything, including roles in Bond and the recent Casual Vacancy on the BBC, and while he may not quite be a household name yet, is very highly regarded among theatre watchers – much as Benedict Cumberbatch used to be, and we all know how that turned out.

The Trial is a part absurdist, part-Brechtian, part-naturalistic drama about a totalitarian state that arrests Josef K a seemingly upstanding citizen one morning for an unspecified crime. But he’s not detained and while he awaits a series of hearing dates at ‘The Court’, Josef tries to discover what his crime has been and attends a number of surreal encounters with court officials and a potential lawyer while becoming increasingly famous for his unknown misdemeanour. There is a slim chance he could be set free but he must try to recall every bad deed he has ever committed which means filling out endless reams of yellow forms. Before long Josef discovers that a sure case of mistaken identity has taken over his entire life, but will he ever clear his name with the faceless Court?

The first thing you’ll notice as you enter the auditorium is the crazy design which has turned the Young Vic’s space into a giant orange courtroom with the audience seated in raked boxes facing each other. In the centre is a giant keyhole which rises up to reveal a treadmill on which the set is built underneath. It’s a neat way to imply the nature of this world based on secret observation although you might have to push pictures of David Frost and Lloyd Grosman from your mind as you muse on ‘who lives in a house like this’. The treadmill is clever way to move the action smoothly from scene to scene while implying a sense of inevitability in Josef’s story – once he’s set on this path it (somewhat literally) only goes in one direction.

But this is no 1984 and the audience is never allowed to get too close to the action, as well as being deliberately alienated from the central character by the language. In his monologue moments Josef speaks in a heightened way using ‘im’ and ‘ooo’ to refer to himself which reminded me of a James Joyce style deliberately intended to stop you feeling too much sympathy for him as we almost clinically observe his decline. This is the most challenging aspect of the play which clearly made it difficult for some members of the audience to understand what was going on. If straightforward, naturalistic theatre is your preference then this may not be an easy thing to watch, and would probably suit you better if you prefer more alternative and surreal styles.

On the whole the acting is extremely good and while your engagement with the plot can falter (and certainly did for a lot of people) there are some great performances. Rory Kinnear is of course superb as Josef, expertly plotting his increased frenzy as the process of discovering his crime begins to take over his entire life. Kinnear’s previous work, including a wonderfully malevolent Iago at the National in 2013, has created a great sense of expectation around his stage appearances, so it seems timely that he should join forces with the equally trendy Young Vic. In Kinnear’s performance you also get the sense that Josef was himself once a faceless man, trundling absently through life and working in a bank, making no mark on the world, but the layers of bureaucracy that suddenly make him famous are impossible to manage. The distancing of the audience means we never really get to know Josef and this story becomes a faceless man taking on a faceless system.

Kate Flynn is also excellent playing a number of key women in Josef’s life including the neighbour he is in love with and a school girl assistant to the lawyer who falls for him, as well as a stripper (who is too obviously wearing flesh coloured shorts) entertaining him as the play opens. If the text is making a point about the facelessness of these women who possibly in Josef’s mind all look the same, it is never made entirely clear but certainly suggests the interchangeability of the individual. There’s also a decent cast of additional characters who are all part of this treadmill of bureaucracy from Bogart-esque people in macs who are not even slightly scary to surreal court officials talking administrative nonsense and Josef’s bustling bank colleagues.

It does suffer from projection problems with the sound of the treadmill and the music periodically obscuring the dialogue, especially when the actor is facing away from you, which certainly doesn’t help audience engagement. While the acting is good and there is the germ of an engaging story at times, it is a hard piece to appreciate. Part of that this heightened brightly coloured world feels as though it’s trying too hard to be full of metaphor and meaning, which combined with the arms-length feel of the production creates a tension between wanting us to understand and pushing us away, thus making it difficult for some people to stay awake, never mind keep the story and themes straight long enough to form an opinion on whether they enjoyed it.

There’s some good stuff here in both the use of innovative techniques and yet another complete transformation of the Young Vic space. Rory Kinnear is certainly marvellous and probably deserves an award for maintaining 2 straight hours on stage, but ultimately something is not quite coming together here and you don’t leave mulling over the injustice of this state or being suitably warned about the over-systematisation of government. Although it was practically sold out before it opened, I have a feeling some of those pre-sales will regret their hasty purchase, so if it sounds like your thing returns will probably be fairly easy to come by. It’s not dreadful by any means but is likely only to suit particular theatre tastes, and not quite as engrossing as other recent Young Vic successes.

The Trial is at the Young Vic until 22nd August. Tickets are from £19-£35.

NB: An alternative version of this review from the press night performance was previously published on The Public Reviews website. The review above refers to a separate performance.


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