Tag Archives: Sam Mendes

Film Review: 1917 and the Theatre of War

1917 Film

When the hundred year commemorations concluded in November 2018, you may have thought that interest in the First World War would wane. There are fads and fashions in historical study as there are in culture, but Britain has never escaped the emotional shadow of a conflict that combined new weapons with a vast loss of life, a mechanisation of mass death fought simultaneously for the first time on land, sea and in the sky. Yet, despite its scale and with experience of the conflict now beyond living memory, our connection to the Great War continues to be a very personal one. Sam Mendes’s new film 1917 is famously based on the stories told to him by his grandfather to whom the film is dedicated, and while clearly a passion project for the director, it is also a revelatory combination of cinematic and theatrical techniques that offer one of the most accurate depictions of the First World War on screen.

1917 and The Modern War Movie

The war movie has notably changed in recent years with films like Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk challenging the cliches of the genre. While the latter offered a more immersive experience, unfolding in real-time to submerge the audience in the strained tension and ongoing danger of servicemen’s experience, Dibb’s film based on R.C. Sherriff’s famous play, played down the pity and disillusion so prevalent in First World War movies to show men hardened and exhausted by their experience, living from day to day but able to suppress their emotional reactions in order to carry on, giving a different kind of psychological poignancy to this well-known work.

The newly ennobled Mendes combines the two here but also offers something entirely new by breaking out of the trenches to create a more inclusive picture of the scope and scale of the war effort. Regardless of its setting, 1917 is essentially a journey narrative, taking two characters from one place to another, drawing its interest from their various encounters, perils and obstacles to overcome on the way. Structurally then, Mendes film is first and foremost drawing on tropes from work as diverse as Saving Private Ryan, Slow West and even Lord of the Rings, all of which use a journey to drive the narrative forward and sew a series of disparate encounters together.

But 1917 also remains recognisably and completely a war film, creating moments of high stakes tension that brilliantly imagine the landscape of the First World War, with all the elements you want to see – trenches, No Man’s Land, shattered trees, shell craters, dugouts and bombardments – but none of this is presented in the way you expect. What Mendes does is to extract the weighty emotionalism from these symbols of the conflict by making them feel everyday, there are no lingering shots of the many dead bodies (people, horses and dogs) littering battlefields, rivers and buildings, the giant rats or shattered townscapes or the misery of the men in the Front Line. All of these things are there but not the focus, instead the camera follows the protagonists on their mission travelling through a terrain which by this point in the war is entirely normal to them. Through the one shot (or “no cuts” as Mendes prefers) technique, the audience experiences the film as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake do, death, decay and destruction are just part of what they see, with little sensationalism or sentimentality for the most part, and these innovative approaches make it unlike any war film you have ever seen.

Theatre Influences

One of the most intriguing aspects of 1917 is just how much of it draws on the techniques of theatre and Mendes vast experience in the West End without feeling “stagey.” As a theatre director, Mendes’s work in recent years has been remarkable, imagining events on an epic scale but balancing that with the intimacy of human relationships across generations. Mendes doesn’t so much as director as conduct plays, most notably in The Ferryman where the flow of information from multiple characters and perspectives felt like segments of music softly rising and falling as different sections of the orchestra were given precedence. The same was true of the more dramatically satisfying The Lehman Trilogy that took a cast of just three and told a family story of American finance over more than a century.

Here in 1917, Mendes achieves the same effect and while the thriller-like narrative arc with ticking clock helps the audience to experience the fears, determination and emotions of the lead characters, Mendes also renders the entire war in microcosm, representing on the one hand the wider picture of a conflict occurring right across the landscape of France that somehow makes reference to all the previous years of battle and credibly places these men in this moment, but also demonstrates the wider system of war including aerial reconaissance, snipers, transport trucks and medical facilities behind the lines. And even more extraordinarily, Mendes’s story unfolds as a  single journey through the process of war itself, from hopeful preparation to minor skirmishes, ultimate battle and the casualty clearing station where one way or another it all ends. It is that balancing of scale and intimacy influenced by Mendes’s theatre work that makes this film such a rich and fulfilling experience.

The no cuts approach also demands theatre-like performances from the cast and, in a Q&A that accompanied a preview of the film last week, George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman and Mendes discussed the extensive rehearsal period and the challenge of lengthy takes. The longest sequence in the middle of the film lasts eight and half minutes (you’ll never see the joins), a feat the actors had to perform in its entirety tens of times and constantly at the mercy of faulty props, mistakes and camera issues that required an entire reset – hence the slightly exaggerated story in the media mis-attributing errors in a scene to Andrew Scott that required 56 takes. Nonetheless, the process Mendes employed here to elicit performances from his actors is a theatrical one with long sequences of dialogue exchange and movement that required an intuitive relationship with the camera more akin to NT Live than standard film-making as the actors eschew the choreography of rigid shots and reaction moments to move more freely through the landscape of the film with the camera responding to them.

The performances are presented with the same kind of normality as the context, with Mendes insisting on a more realistic everyman feel to the leads rather than action superheroes. Mackay as Schofield is particularly good at the heart of the film, a solid soldier, whose rationality and grounded response to the issues that arise is sympathetically played and the audience wills his success at every moment. Chapman’s Blake is more hot-headed, driven by the chance to save his brother and more likely to charge into danger without thinking, which makes them an interesting and suitably antagonistic pairing who find a deep but unsentimental comradeship, one that isn’t constantly reacting to the horrors around them but bent solely on their mission.

The film is also full of understated but wonderful cameos from a host of theatre stars, introduced unceremoniously and woven tightly into the story to give momentary but superb performances that add a Waiting for Godot quality as the protagonists encounter a variety of different groups. Andrew Scott (Present Laughter; Hamlet) is outstanding as a weary and cynical Lieutenant, an equally impressive Mark Strong (A View From the Bridge) brings a heartfelt gravitas to his scenes as Captain Smith, blink and you’ll almost miss the wonderful Jamie Parker (High Society; Henry V), Adrian Scarborough (Exit the King; Don Juan in Soho) and Richard McCabe (Imperium), while Benedict Cumberbatch (Hamlet; Frankenstein) and Richard Madden (Romeo and Juliet) are crucial to the film’s final moments. 1917 is then the fascinating application of theatre techniques to a film that evolves into something entirely of its own, offering a new perspective on a familiar era.

The Reality of War

Yet, as a fictionalised story Mendes has clearly stated that dramatic licence, compressing events and experiences, is necessary to make 1917 cinematic, but he is overmodest in playing-down the vision of war he has created, which is one of the most realistic and inclusive dramatisations of 1914-1918 that we’ve seen. A lot of time in the First World War was spent waiting or moving, with the bombardment and slaughters of No Man’s Land far from a daily feature. By opening-out the world of the film and leaving the individual dugout, Mendes, really for the first time, shows the much larger system of war operation – often wider than the individual soldier could see – where different types of landscape existed, and as we follow Schofield and Blake through rivers, woods and fields, passed farmhouses and through artillery-battered towns, our understanding of the wide-ranging effect on Northern France is enlarged.

The balance between the famous mechanisation of the Great War and of the natural world is a crucial one, thematic almost, and Mendes is careful to walk the characters through the different types of terrain where fighting took place while emphasising the power of nature to eventually renew and restore. So as our soldiers leave the devastated and familiarly churned earth of No Man’s Land, explore a German trench and make their way through an artillery graveyard filled with shells and damaged guns, they emerge into places that are greener and, while perilous, accurately reflect the contrasting worlds of conflict and pseudo-reality which men experienced. Mendes uses these to explore the periods of intense drama in which the pair must overcome various obstacles interleaved with relatively long sequences of calm, comradeship and near normality that accurately reflect servicemen’s descriptions of combat.

This broadening-out of our perspective of war extends to the representation of other services as well. Often the one thing missing from almost every First World War film are the aeroplanes, the existence of the Royal Flying Corps who flew reconnaissance missions across the battlefield from the very beginning appear in 1917 exactly as they should. And not only does photographic aerial intelligence rightly become the springboard for the story, but aeroplanes are seen overhead, including a crash that nods to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (no spoiler, it’s in the trailer). The date – 6 April 1917 –  reflects a period in which Germany was launching a large scale attack by its dangerous Albatros fighting squadrons that would wreak havoc for British pilots devastated by the “Bloody April” onslaught that started a few days after the events of the film. Including these snippets gives context to Schofield and Blake’s assignment, while recognising the vital role that all services played in the wider system of war in which these two men are simultaneously a tiny and vital part.

No Cuts Drama

Mendes spoke at the Q&A of the difficulty of creating tension with no cuts and where a director would normally rely on camera angles, shots and positioning to visually manage audience reactions, the complex simplicity of the film’s style meant music, sound and cinematography were vital to creating the changing mood. Thomas Newman’s developing score is crucial to the shape and evolving style of the movie, using plenty of low ominous beats to reflect the characters’ nervousness or fear in confined spaces while building to swelling – and more typically – classic crescendos in the final section of the film. But Newman also chooses near silence for poignant moments as the world pauses to absorb what happened. Look out too for a melancholic song performed in the woods and a very brief instance of birdsong, one of the sounds most meaningfully associated with war.

Occasionally the dialogue, co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is a little clunky or over-sentimental with some emphasis on the futility of war, but Roger Deakins cinematography is exemplary, particularly the night scenes filled with fire and shadow that has an extraordinary visual beauty and Mendes notes a deliberate mythic quality to this section of the story. Mendes and Deakins previously worked together on Skyfall – easily the most aethetically arresting Bond film – and there are strong parallels here with both the continuing use of shadow as well as the Bond film’s final sequence in the Scottish highlands where a fascination with the effects of coloured smoke, silhouette and light strikingly draw the two films together.

1917 is then one of the most interesting, realistic and complete impressions of the First World War on film. It takes the attributes of the World War One movie, combines them with the tricks of the thriller and borrows a sense of purpose and drive from journey narratives to create something entirely new. By drawing on the directional and writing techniques of theatre Mendes creates an engaging and multi-faceted movie that opens-out the meaning and experience of the First World War. It is never less than a fascinating technical and story-telling exercise that pushes the boundaries of innovative film-making while following the quietly heroic story of brave men doing their jobs in a conflict that remains an ever-present and meaningful part of Britian’s modern history.

1917 is in cinemas now. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog 


The Lehman Trilogy – National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy - National Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre

The Ferryman by Johan Persson

Looking back across the Twentieth-Century one of the things you see most clearly is violence, as each generation passed the experience and legacy of conflict onto the next. From the Boer War at the beginning to the invasion of Iraq at the end, the effect of war on the countless young men who fought it and their families had far reaching consequences. Yet, on mainland Britain after the Second World War, the knowledge of being under fire at home receded, and wars once again became something that happened somewhere else in the world. For those living in Northern Ireland however, violent confrontation with the consequences of British rule continued to be felt, laying a trail of protest and suffering that ran like a backbone through the century.

Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, opened to considerable acclaim at the Royal Court before transferring swiftly to the West End, where last week’s press night heaped more plaudits on a show that instantly extended its run until January. Subsequent audiences now see this production with a great weight of expectation attached which The Ferryman does live up to, but as a fellow audience member pointed out it is perhaps interesting more than obviously enjoyable, a fascinating experience rather than something that is profoundly emotional or straight-forwardly entertaining. Yet, it is nonetheless an affecting theatrical experience.

Set in the early 1980s at the time of the hunger strikes at the Maze prison, The Ferryman takes place over 24 hours in the rural home of the Carney family, but it is a play about the whole century using three generations who link the Easter Rising to IRA activity beyond the date of the story. Butterworth has carefully structured the play so the audience can practically see the baton pass from the elders of the family, whose stories and experiences dominate the early part, through to the teenagers and younger children who will replace them in a continuous battle between those seeking Irish independence through violence and those who crave a peaceful future.

10 years before the start of the play, Caitlin’s husband “disappears” and she spends a decade living with her brother-in-law Quinn’s family on their farm. But the body unexpectedly comes to light and the local priest acting on instruction from IRA front-man Muldoon breaks the news to Quinn as the family gather to take in the harvest. Reeling from finally knowing the truth, the Carneys try to carry on with the celebration, but Muldoon has a deal to offer them which will disrupt the fragile peace they’ve built in the last 10 years.

Butterworth is writing here on a large scale, using the experience of one family as a microcosm to understand the history and future of Ireland at this point. As a result, the way he presents intimate stories and memories are also sprawling in nature, and rather than focusing on one strand or generation, the three Acts are a series of interlinked but also separate conversations between a family that knows virtually nothing about itself as different groups of people share their experiences. There is an ebb and flow to his writing that you feel across the production as particular memories or characters come into focus and then recede into the background while others take their turn.

And so many themes wash through this production, all of which give you a sense of the context for this particular moment in time and how it sits within the history, culture and mythology of Ireland. First and foremost, it asks big questions about when the individual should stand-up and be counted, and when it’s best to do nothing, as head of the family Quinn (Paddy Considine) finds the choices he made in his own impassioned youth are echoed in the present day when he has considerably more to lose.

There is also a strong emphasis on storytelling that creates an ongoing dialogue with the world beyond the family, and the play is essentially a series of stories in which different people hold forth, conferring a kind of status on their experiences. And while that does occasionally add to the play’s protracted length, Butterworth’s writing uses each segment as an opportunity to shine a light on different corners of the farmhouse, whether it’s the politicised great Aunt Patricia who never recovered from seeing her brother die during the Easter Rising, or the young tearaway cousin Shane who’s proud to be secretly working for Muldoon’s men while on his paper-round.

One of the most interesting but subtly woven elements is the influence of military life on the Carney family. As they set-out to begin the harvest day, the younger boys act like soldiers under the direction of Quinn who marches them out to work, which later links not just to the real-life warfare going on in the nearby towns full of real servicemen, but also to the family’s history of soldiering and active protest across the century. Both the missing brother and Quinn were connected to the IRA, while their sons debate it, and several of the women in the family share the fate of their counterparts across the century by becoming eternal widows, losing someone they care about and living a life of permanent absence, here given almost physical form by their longing.

Sam Mendes doesn’t so much direct all of this as conduct it, as waves of story and meaning roll and crash across the stage. It is technically impressive to keep control of such an elaborate saga, while allowing each piece to land at the right emotional pitch. Mendes, no stranger to managing scale and intimacy on stage and film, makes this feel like a concert where he orchestrates the pitch and swell of the music, keeping some sections low while others erupt, but each feeding in to the slow-burn feel that drives the play.

However, as admirable and skilled a construction as it is, The Ferryman is a play you watch more with your head than your heart, recognising its intellectual contribution but not ‘living’ it with them.  A sizeable cast and the continual movement between stories means you get a range of viewpoints and breadth of family experience but, with a few exceptions, no one story gets the time or depth of connection to really touch you.

Paddy Considine as Quinn is a man who has left his past behind and reinvented himself as a happy farmer with seven children and a largely untroubled life. We first see him dancing wildly to the Rolling Stones in the kitchen – one of several nicely pitched moments where past and future collide through music –  and it’s clear he is the fun dad heading a harmonious household – apart for the growing attraction to sister-in-law Caitlin which neither chooses to confront. There is an interesting tension between Considine and Laura Donnelly throughout the play suggesting the deeper connection they’d developed, while Considine gets to explore a darker element as the intrusion of Muldoon slowly reignites Quinn’s engagement with the political and dangerous world he once escaped from.

Donnelly meanwhile has to navigate being a surrogate parent to Quinn’s children while their mother claims illness upstairs, running the household and fighting her attraction to Quinn. But the arrival of firm news about her husband’s death starts to unpick the balance she had established, and Donnelly brings considerable emotion to Caitlin’s attempts to stifle her grief for the sake of appearances. As the other woman in Quinn’s life, Genevieve O’Reilly’s sickly Mary is a pale figure, giving a different dimension to the running theme of absence, but grows in stature in the final Act as she attempts to reclaim some lost ground.

Among the wider cast, there are excellent turns from Brid Brennan as Aunty Maggie whose partial lucidity brings forth several important memories from the past, while Dearbhla Molloy’s caustic Aunty Patricia has more fire and political anger than anyone else in the play, finding the triviality of the harvest hard to stomach while prisoners are starving in protest. Des McAleer proves a great foil as Uncle Patrick whose sparring with Patricia leads to a hilarious exchange of barbs, while Tom Glynn-Carney has verve and swagger as the teenager Shane who thinks he’s a big man but reeks of naivety. Meanwhile, Stuart Graham casts a dark shadow as Muldoon, his presence a blot on the Carney family festivities whose performance adds a necessary touch of menace.

As well as being a serious piece, The Ferryman is often a very funny play with many lighter moments to ease the tension – although arguably that tension is not pointed or protracted enough, and it would have added considerably to the drama to feel the political and military situation intruding more sharply as the play unfolds. Aspects of the conclusion also feel a little unlikely as several things happen in quick succession, taking the scene to the point of melodrama that sits uncomfortably with the rest of the play. For it to make sense, some of these outcomes need to be built into the play at an earlier stage, because as spur of the moment actions they don’t quite convince, and this would also remove the unnecessary exposition of things the audience had already gleaned from the preceding scenes. How much more powerful and satisfying it could have been to forego all of this hysteria and end the play a few minutes earlier with a female sacrifice to protect the family she has grown to love.

In many ways The Ferryman is a companion piece to Steve McQueen’s 2008 film debut Hunger a more brutal depiction of the events at the Maze prison which, taken together with Butterworth’s play, show both the political and social impacts of the protests and the desire for justice. Your response to The Ferryman may well vary depending on your knowledge and experience of the era it depicts, but whether it captures your head or your heart, it is part of a wider story about the militarisation of young men and its consequences across the Twentieth-Century.

The Ferryman is at the Gielgud Theatre until 6 January and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


King Lear – National Theatre

Sam Mendes has created a cold and bleak world in which Lear publicly divides his Kingdom amongst his three daughters. Here is a version of a totalitarian state; an absolute monarchy in which the army shore up the whims and fancies of their King. It is an overwhelmingly masculine domain in which familial relationships are brutally sacrificed for political gain. At more than three hours, this is not an easy production to watch; it is violent and unremitting, but staged with a film-like breadth and intensity that will feel like you’ve been through an emotional mangle by the end.

Two families are presented, first Lear and his ungrateful daughter, with whom you initially sympathise, exasperated by a father who continues to demand a share in the power he, by choice, relinquished. Lear imposes himself on Goneril’s palace with 100 knights who contemptuously wolf-whistling as she enters a room – hardly appropriate behaviour to a Royal princess. This is not a world where women can prosper and it’s hard to believe the daughter’s rule would ever be accepted. Anna Maxwell Martin plays effectively against type as a vampy Regan, a fur-coated gangster’s moll goading her bullish husband to hideous acts of torture. Soon the grasping political nature of the sisters is revealed as they plot and scheme to permanently remove their father, and eventually each other, from office.

Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is very competent, although quite shouty and inaudible at times. He’s a despotic ruler, short-tempered and easily riled – especially when his vanity is wounded by Cordelia’s refusal. Like a school bully, his power is drawn from the mob around him and as they desert him he is unable to retain his sanity. But Lear is a mass of contradictions; he is simultaneously an enraged tyrant and loving father, whilst at the height of his madness, he lucidly recalls the cause of his troubles. Russell Beale’s complex and watchable performance captures all of this, but he’s initially so alienating that he couldn’t engage my sympathy until the final scene. Overall he’s less compelling than the other big performances this winter, Tennant’s monumental Richard II and Hiddleston’s frighteningly powerful Coriolanus.

However, the other family examined here, Gloucester and his sons – Edgar legitimate and Edmund not – was genuinely touching. Sam Troughton’s Edmund was a brilliant study of cruel ambition, destroying all around him; he could almost have been the natural heir to the despotic early Lear. But, in a very good cast, it was Tom Brooke as Edgar and Stephen Boxer (a potentially great Lear) as Gloucester who stood out, and haven’t received nearly enough attention in the critical reviews. A fabulous performance from both, gripping from the moment they walked on stage and genuinely heart-rending during some horribly dark consequences for Gloucester, brutally played out before us. Like Polonius’s family in Hamlet, also fodder to royal intrigues, Gloucester and Edgar are fundamentally good people, almost innocently caught-up in the wider dramas, making their story all the more tragic and affecting.

Finally to the staging. Sam Mendes brings an impressive filmic quality to this production with sets signifying both the grand application of the plot’s national wars, and the frailness of the individual against the political and elemental backdrop. There are video projections of rolling black clouds, loud claps of thunder as the storm takes hold, fire and smoke as war breaks out, creating an impressive sense of epic drama. It’s certainly ambitious direction and design, and although some have been critical, I found it refreshing. Often Shakespeare is minimal these days so it’s quite fun to see a version that has chucked everything in to remarkable effect.

The major downside is there are no tickets. The second release has also sold out (the NT has an annoying habit of allowing members to buy them all so there’s nothing for public release), but check the website regularly, tickets are being returned every day and you’ll hopefully see one of those dates go orange – but be quick! Overall, the National Theatre has another winner on its hands here and you’ll certainly leave impressed by the power of this production. It’s a fine cast, well directed, and although the central performance didn’t quite grip me as other recent productions have done, this is still an exciting and fascinating interpretation.

King Lear is at the National Theatre until 28 May and will be available in cinemas via NT Live on 1 May.


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