Tag Archives: Soutra Gilmour

Further Than the Furthest Thing – Young Vic

Malevolent forces shaping small communities is a strong premise for all kinds of drama, from the arrival of outsiders that tend to be the focus of horror to the power shifts of Pinter plays that upset the status quo with new authorities forming that overshadow the existing order. Zinnie Harris’s 2000 play Further Than the Furthest Thing combines these ideas with broader notions of industrialisation and the religious management of a community relatively untroubled by the outside world until one if it’s returning sons brings change. But who exactly is in danger here, the islanders or the people that enter this place from outside? It may take close to three hours to find out but there is plenty to engage with along the way.

Staged in the round at the Young Vic, this revival is a purposefully disconcerting experience with long sections of deeply compelling conversation around which the story unfolds. Some of these feels quite tangential in the long first Act that runs for close to 90-minutes but the avenues that Harris pursues eventually coalesce in the second where the testing of family loyalties interacts with a fear of change and a romantic connection to home and the natural world. Throughout, there is an almost supernatural feeling of impending doom, of tragedy waiting to strike but not of the innocence of these island people being unfairly tested. This atmospheric play is ultimately about delayed retribution and the choices humanity makes for itself whatever the cost.

Harris has created a peculiar half world somewhere between an unsmirched Eden and a troubled land deliberately quarantining itself from the life beyond. It exists in a nowhere place that is accessible from Cape Town and England but with accents that mix Scottish and Irish with northern England. The extent to which the returning Francis and his factory-owning friend Mr Hansen bring some kind of evil with them is open to debate, or perhaps it exists on the island already with something stirring the sea, individuals behaving strangely, two fresh eggs being smashed to reveal a blackened centre and a new life on the way that does not necessarily indicate a welcome or fresh start for the characters.

The return of Mill and Bill’s nephew Francis from Cape Town is a happy event initially, although Mill’s refusal to be touched or hugged at first keeps Francis at bay, creating a separation between the generations as the younger seeks assimilation and development while the elder wish to preserve and honour their traditions. As Francis lays out a plan to build a factory on the island, something supported by the community in an unseen vote, Harris adopts an Enemy of the People feel but soon takes the play in another direction, referencing works as diverse as The Crucible in the closely observed interactions of a defined and frightened society, as well as Jerusalem in the unpicking of notions of illusory nationality and connection to the pastoral while something rotten or broken occurs on the surface. These portents of doom and the effect of nature itself steer the play towards a more uncomfortable, even pre-dystopian destination.

The two parts of Further Than the Furthest Thing are tonally quite different from one another, although they are thematically linked through discussions of cause and effect as well as the clash of rural and urban life. The first is set entirely on the unnamed island, a place reliant on ‘the boats’ to bring them food and people but largely unengaged with the countries beyond, entirely sitting out the Second World War as the audience discovers later in the play. It is nominally the early 1960s but Harris effectively creates a timeless and rootless place, using a linguistic quirk that gives the islanders a child like and colloquial sentence structure with few having attended school or ever left the place that they were born. But Harris uses only three characters to represent the community – Mill and her husband William known as Bill, along with young woman Rebecca.

The implication of unearthly influences on the island is not something that the play satisfactorily resolves, although a rational explanation is given in Act Two. Bill’s overwhelming encounter with the rumbling water in a mountain lake that almost causes him to drown is staged as a supernatural event in this Young Vic production with a dramatic opening scene directed by Jennifer Tang in which Ian William Galloway’s video design and Prema Mehta’s lighting create gentle waves that evolve into rapid, violent swirls of black and coloured light. That Bill is a Christian who saw the war and brought both a church and the practice of baptism – an significant ritual of renewal – to the community is an important theme in the context of these strange occurrences, implying a godly intervention, a punishment perhaps, that sits alongside the scientific reasoning of the second part of the drama. Yet in the characters’ devotion to the island, they never questions the factual cause or the possibility that this creator has turned on them.

This is given further emphasis in Rebecca’s story, pregnant by a man she refuses to name and viewed within the village as part scarlet woman in the style of Mary Magdalene and part maternal figure, perhaps experiencing an immaculate conception. Harris uses Rebecca as the catalyst for the drama and having established the strange wonders of island life, the attempt to keep Francis on the island through marriage and the true story behind Rebecca’s pregnancy take the story in a darker, almost horrifying direction with an act of conspiracy the characters must pay for later in the play. The powerful scene in which Rebecca gives birth with only Bill to support is sparsely staged by Designer Soutra Gilmour using black cloths and a coloured paste-like substance in place of both blood and water, implying the rottenness that has been born in this community, a place where nothing new can live.

Act Two is a very different proposition, set a year later in an English factory run by South African manager Mr Hansen in which Francis has assumed a supervisory role. Harris presents a far clearer concept of dystopia in a heavily populated industrial city that the islanders struggle to adjust to when their freedom is replaced by long hours of repetitive work, the sunless confines of the production line and boiler room as well as the damp-filled temporary homes they have been given. The writer examines notions of forgetting here, linking up with part one in the romantic examination of the idealised natural environment that the islanders-turned-workers hold in their heads in contrast with the place they now exist in (and never appear to leave). Their desire to return to their apparently devastated home is the dramatic driver.

There are also character developments in this part of Further Than the Furthest Thing that return to the generational divide in which the indecisive Francis refuses to remember the island or believe in returning to it, accepting instead the new life and career opportunities a much larger world can offer. Harris and this production present a gloomy picture of the factory world but cast no particular judgement about the choice Francis and unseen others make to stay in England. By contrast, Mill clings to the physicality of the place she once lived in a dreamlike speech in which she refuses to accept the ruin of everything she knew without seeing it for herself and determines to fund a return trip. And it is at this point that revolving slowly on the central stage at the Young Vic, Harris’s doom-laden story finally reveals itself as Mill quietly confesses the recent history of this romanticised place and the human choice from which the suffering of this community has emerged and turned against them.

Harris tells a long and complex story filled, in this production at least, with a somewhat incomplete balance between Christianity and the supernatural, the power of industrialisation and nature, remote and urban living. The depth of these debates is partially sacrificed to plot and character resolution, providing firm answers where perhaps a little ambiguity would be valuable. The changing tone is very engaging though in Tang’s production, making the audience work hard to keep up with the shifting sands of the narrative and involved in these concepts of good and evil, along with who is being punished and why. It is an elusive drama at times but one that has a cumulative power, captivating in its scant physical detail a vast conceptual framework particularly when the different strands of the story come together and characters attempt to come to terms with what they have done.

There are tones of Yaël Farber in the production choices and aesthetic, staged on a slow revolve designed by Gilmour, the first Act being largely representative, with four chairs and actors ever present around the room. This creates space for their relationships to grow while implying the expanse of the beautiful island vista with mountains and the sea that are left to the audience’s imagination while creating enough room for shadows to fall that alter the viewers perspective on this supposed idyll as the drama unfolds. Act Two is far more proscribed by Gilmour with crescent two-tier bars dominating the stage, implying the claustrophobic nature of the factory space as well as doubling for offices and the important boiler room control panel where Bill’s choices eventually confound him.

Jenna Russell leads the drama in the complex presentation of Mill, an almost ethereal character at times who represents the simplicity and beauty of island life but also has a deeply practical, even controlling streak that tries to retain the life she knows. Russell with a soft Scottish accent barely raises her voice in close to three hours of performance, softly inciting others to action, whether it be the nervous Bill holding the warm but fragile eggs that herald so much drama or convincing Francis to stay and marry into the island. The steelier determination of Act Two feels more frenzied but there is both pathos and conviction as Russell calmly reveals the truth about her community.

Bill is more subject to external forces than his wife and Cyril Nri charts a course in which the character becomes overwhelmed by the choices he makes, fearing the Christian retribution that the rumbling sea foretells. His nervousness develops into fear and guilt in the second part of the drama, suddenly thrust into the noisy and chaotic world of the factory, a kind of hell that in Nri’s performance sets a path for inevitable tragedy. Kirsty Rider is also particular good as Rebecca, a character scorned but also beloved, childhood sweethearts with Francis but who suffers uncomplainingly throughout the first act, seeing a far darker perspective on the world than any of her neighbours. But Rebecca undergoes an important transition through the things that are done to her body, and in Rider’s performance, a return to the island is less about salvation than independence and self-sufficiency.

Francis is a harder character to understand, and seems to make choices depending on where he is, wanting to stay on the island when he’s there but happy to forget it ever existed when he’s not. Such extremes of unaccountable behaviour are not an easy thing for Archie Madekwe to navigate but he makes Francis feel convincing, representing the desire to move beyond childhood into another kind of experience. Finally, Gerald Kyd as Mr Hansen is an increasingly empathetic figure who has far more to do in the second part of the play and his own demons to fight for which guilt consumes him eventually.

Like Jerusalem, Further Than the Furthest Thing muses on the rural past that Britain has left behind and the simpler but more fulfilling way of life lost with it. But Harris remains unblinkered about the problematic nature of that lifestyle and the costs of absenting yourself entirely from the world beyond. This Young Vic production exposes some of the unresolved thinking that sits around Harris play but with so many contrasting malevolent forces cutting through the lives of these characters, it will also keep you riveted in your seat wondering how it will all end.

Further Than the Furthest Thing is at the Young Vic until 29 April with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Closer – Lyric Hammersmith

Closer - Lyric Hammersmith

For all its political associations, the romance and the primacy that society suggests we give it in our lives, the human heart ‘looks like a fist wrapped in blood.’ This searingly anatomical description is spat out by a character who has had theirs broken in Patrick Marber’s anti-love play Closer, a modern classic about the messy dramas between four people that still hangs heavy 25 years after it premiered. Very much situated in its 1990s context – a setting the Lyric Hammersmith retains for its latest staging – the play nonetheless retains a contemporary power not only in its brutal commentary about relationships, lust and the availability of desire, but also in its melancholy (rather than cynical) perspective on the emptiness, absence and even the insufficiency of love between people who believe it should give their lives the meaning and purpose they look for others to supply.

Opening in 1997, Closer is a play that could not be written now, or certainly not in quite the same way. At the most surface level, a key plot device in Act One relies on Internet Chat Rooms that could only exist in a world before Twitter and Instagram. There is still comedy mileage in bored writer Dan posing as a woman called ‘Anna’ to tease dermatologist Larry, little knowing that his online entertainment will set in motion events that will culminate in his own heartbreak. Catfishing still goes on, of course, but a Closer relocated to the Tinder generation would lose the desperation of confined characters who would now have unlimited access to multiple partners and an unashamed openness about fulfilling their desires – perhaps rather than talking about them.

Likewise, Larry’s visit to the strip club in Act Two couldn’t work so well in the age of Internet porn where he could fire up his laptop at home to access any number of live or pre-recorded women to suit his tastes. The ‘service’ Alice claims to provide is readily available in a global marketplace while Alice herself could disappear into that world and never be found again, not even by chance. Human needs and behaviours may not have changed, but the mechanics of meeting and diverting them, upon which the plot of Closer rests, certainly have.

The other noticeable element of the play that will keep it firmly in the 1990s is its language and the way in which men speak to and about its women. The vocabulary of Closer is highly sexualised, graphically so in places, and while we are no more modest than we were when this was written, the tendency of male characters to use words like ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ as derogatory insults in everyday conversation feels far less palatable now, particularly when asking the audience to continue to invest in the life of the group. Larry, Dan, Anna and Alice have complexity in which they are their desires and more than that, but Closer noticeably represents the male gaze and especially the fickleness of male desire when seen in the context of our twenty-first-century attitudes to and descriptions of sex. Even as early as 2004 – notably the year that Mike Nichols film version was released – Tina Fey used Mean Girls to question the use of this vocabulary as a tool of oppression and disrespect to dehumanise women, so it is this language that also dates Closer.

As do the incidences of male violence – a rather unpleasant underbelly that Marber employs to prevent us from rooting for anyone too much. Larry’s temper and toxicity are openly repellent, felt not only in his lurid pursuit of sex at any cost, even cheating on his wife of only a few months, but also in the tone of his bullying rages when he argues with her about her own infidelity. Meanwhile, Dan’s more manipulative coercion is equally difficult to tolerate and a contemporary-set version of Closer could not justify either woman still wanting to be with these men. And while it wasn’t acceptable even in the 90s and Marber puts his male characters through considerable emotional pain to balance out their actions, it is harder to write these kinds of male characters now without properly punishing them or drawing attention to their behaviours and the effects on the women who endure it.

But Closer still has a hold, its convoluted entanglements and the easy pain the foursome cause themselves and each other has a universality that 25-years hasn’t dimmed. These are characters unafraid to show their ugliest sides in the selfish pursuit of love, a love, that Marber shows, is fleeting and uncertain. As Anna, Alice, Dan and Larry vacillate back and forth for 2.5 hours and several years, the cumulative effect is poisonous rather than romantic, that the concept of being with the right or wrong person is made to seem ludicrously inconsequential in the face of almost everybody’s fatal indecision and the primacy they give to their own happiness.

That Alice is the only character who can truly distinguish between love and lust, between true self-knowledge and momentary desire is pointed, tapping into the questions of identity and awareness that run beneath the surface of the play. Marber builds an essential dichotomy into the heart of Closer, showing three of his creations using their real names to play roles in their own lives, looking to the relationship they’ve just started and just lost to complete something that their creative endeavours or jobs cannot entirely fulfill. They are dreamers believing happiness is within their grasp if only they are with a different person, except they are as unfaithful to their romantic ideals as they eventually are to all their partners. Only Alice is the person whose entire identity is falsified but whose emotions and intentions are genuine, knows instinctively when she’s in love, when she is being used and when to leave. And there is a fascinating tragedy in that which makes Closer worth reviving and examining anew, even within the changing context of a quarter of a century.

Clare Lizzimore’s production for the Lyric Hammersmith understands that far better than the Donmar’s unsatisfactory version in 2015 which never quite got to grips with the different layers within the play. And while the 90s setting draws attention to itself only through a changed response to the text, the simplicity of Lizzimore’s vision allows the emotional beats and deceptions of the play to come to the fore. Enhanced by live music between scenes which help to shape the mood, there is a forlorn sense of longing in Act One in which the protagonists are ready to fall in love and find themselves in the wrong relationships. Lizzimore excavates the intensity in these declarations of passion and in the sometimes violent consequences of infidelity, building a quiet hollowness within these entanglements that makes the characters lack of fulfillment palpable as they selfishly scramble for someone or something else, often with remarkably little guilt about the pain they cause. The overlapping scenes of Dan leaving Alice while Larry and Anna leave one another are particularly sharp, manifesting for the audience the physical and poignant impression of a third person in each relationship.

That all becomes far darker in Act Two as a series of nastier encounters take place and again the layered scene in which Anna confesses her indiscretion to Dan while simultaneously bargaining with Larry earlier in the day is gripping. You feel the tone shift in Lizzimore’s production from people acting from what they believe is love to using sex and possession to coerce and control. There is something sour and uncomfortably sordid about it that leaves a distinct impression at the end of the show, and Lizzimore balances the tonal shifts across the play well arriving at a place of ruin and ambiguity where no one has anything left to fight for but that it could all just start again.

It is a shame then, that the interpretation of Alice is not quite right and for much of the play performer Ella Hunt struggles to make her feel like a real person or give her the same flawed tangibility as the other characters. The show is still in preview and it is a difficult role, one that is cheeky and enigmatic, never quite giving a straight answer but alluring and sympathetic at the same time. Yet, somehow the complicated reality of Alice and her emotional life isn’t claiming its place in the play. She feels like a sketch, a work in progress, even a plot device around which the characters move, the otherness that makes her so compelling and desirable not yet making her seem as credible as her fellows. Some of that is about pitch, relaxing the performance a little in Act One, although Hunt has already found a valuable and considered detachment for her scenes in Act Two where we see a matured version of Alice.

Nine Toussaint-White has found a brilliantly conflicted Anna, given far more agency in the drama than some versions allow. A sophisticated creation offering a complete contrast to Alice, Anna offers the play’s most astute commentary in noting how the men create a fantasy idea of them but never come close to the true all-knowing love they claim to seek. Anna is also honest about the semi-failure of both men to truly satisfy her desires – while on the receiving end of their barbs – and while she instigates her own relationship destruction with poor choices and by wavering between Dan and Larry, there is an underlying brittleness in Toussaint-White’s performance that makes Anna frustratingly sympathetic, deserving of more than either man can offer if only she could see her own value.

Larry is a difficult character to pitch, a slave to his own desires which he never attempts to control and with a violent temper that may not erupt physically but indicates a low estimation of women and the service role they should play in his life. As a doctor, there is a tendency to play him as rather suave for all that but Sam Troughton makes Larry much earthier, a man with few redeeming features and almost reveling in his physical desires, his arrogance and delight in using his power to torture others. There are moments of tenderness, of deep pain beneath the surface which Troughton captures well but it is interesting to see a full throttle version of Larry that doesn’t hide behind the manner of his profession and instead sees him at his most selfish and spiteful.

Jack Farthing’s Dan is one of the best interpretations of recent years, a bundle of contradictions that take some time to reveal themselves to the audience. Dan is overly romantic, dying for love every few scenes but never sorry for the pain he causes others in pursuing his emotional satisfaction. He doesn’t have the same overt desires as Larry but is no less dangerous for it and Farthing is incredibly at ease with all the things that Dan is and wants to be. There is depth to the slow burn of his career failure and a grasping at happiness that is desperately destructive for all concerned. Still, for all Dan’s demands for empathy and a consuming singularity in the love he receives from his partners, Farthing shows how little he considers others and quite how noxious a seemingly quiet, poetic man can be when his own desires are thwarted.

Staged simply as Marber directs, Soutra Gilmour creates the representative spaces that cover several years of action and transport the drama from living rooms and parks to the London Aquarium, an art gallery and Larry’s various offices. All of this is underscored by Arun Ghosh’s music performed by Radhika Aggarwal which rarely intrudes but adds energy to the production by marking the swirling emotional currents. Not quite a perfect version of Closer but a compelling one. If the heart really just looks like a fist wrapped in blood then why, Lizzimore’s production asks, does it hurt so much?

Closer runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 13 August with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Tragedy of Macbeth – Almeida Theatre Live Stream

The Tragedy of Macbeth - Almeida Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

With the return to live theatre and the excitement of season announcements running months ahead, the energy and enthusiasm for hybrid approaches has noticeably died down. Perhaps that is inevitable given the long period of closure, but it hasn’t disappeared completely, particularly among smaller venues whose limited physical capacity can be considerably expanded with live streaming of sold-out shows. And the model for this is something venues are quietly experimenting with, enhanced by the National Theatre’s recent announcement that its NT Live cinema screenings will resume in 2022. The question for theatres is how to find a judicious balance between in-person and other forms of content that valuably enhance its artistic programme and access requirements.

At present, venues are taking quite different approaches to providing online content. The Donmar recently recorded its Constellations series performed at the Vaudeville Theatre and is now offering them in a rentable ‘as live’ archive format, much as the National Theatre has done with its past production catalogue available via its subscription service National Theatre at Home. But these two organisations are also joining forces to bring Kit Harrington’s February turn in Henry V to a cinema audience in a mixed model approach.

Over at the Young Vic, there is a commitment to screening all of its big shows at some point during the run, offering a selection of dates once public performances have begun and looks to the NT Live approach of having in-person and online audiences simultaneously, something that requires careful organisation and camera placement to give both an equally weighted experience. The Old Vic managed this with its version of The Dumb Waiter, although future support for the In-Camera series, of which it was becoming quite adept, remains uncertain with no plans to broadcast future shows as yet.

The Almeida, however is taking an entirely different approach again, providing a Half Term week of online-only performances for its immersive and atmospheric but oversubscribed production of The Tragedy of Macbeth starring James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan. The theatre is relatively new to the live stream programme, but it made a sparking entrance into this new market place with its debut online production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Hymn which was later fully staged once the venue reopened. And with this live-stream-focused Macbeth, it offers director Yael Farber a very different medium to present her three-hour show, giving the cast four nights to play to the camera rather than trying to divide their attention between the house and your house. The result is a focused piece with a cinematic flair that merges film and theatre forms to create a truly hybrid experience.

But let’s start with Macbeth and the production choices that the camera is attempting to capture; Farber’s interpretation is a representative version of Scotland with a simplified militaristic design that favours clean lines and plain, unpatterned fabrics. Although not announced in advance, the production seems designed with the cinema screen in mind, a feature of Farber’s decision-making generally in the creation of symbolic hinterland spaces where the focus can be on character and text. The blue and white colour scheme gives The Tragedy of Macbeth a noir quality without the melodrama that looks rich and shadowy on screen, especially when punctuated by stark white light, while retaining a warmth that draws out both the darkness and passion in the text. With water and plastic screens used to create self-reflective surfaces, there is a painterly visual language that is strong and deep, translating well through the camera by creating a captivating and claustrophobic space in which to situate the drama.

Crucial to the success of any Macbeth are the character choices the Company make which determine how the play should function. Here, the leading couple are driven by pure ambition and while the be-suited three witches plant the seed, the ensuing drama emerges, quite consistently from the couple’s actions and their unforeseen consequences. With characters on stage throughout (which would be more visible to the theatre audience as the close-up camera only captures them fleetingly), the Wyrd Sisters are used to focus our attention on the couple and crucial private moments where decisions are made and where the course of events is determined.

As Big Mama points out in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, the marriage bed is the rocks of the relationship and what happens in it affects the unity of the couple. And so it proves here as Farber stages intimate scenes of conspiracy and the growing distance between the Macbeths in their bedroom. The Wyrd Sisters are seen to hold on to their bedsheets between scenes and are ritualistically tasked with making the bed before the couple use it. It is a clever piece of symbolism that aligns the unity of the couple with their own eventual destiny, and as Macbeth is increasingly absorbed into his own paranoia, the once physical and passionate relationship observed on his return from war becomes about two isolated people driven apart by their ambition as well as their differing responses to the crime, all emerging from and reflected in the state of their marriage bed.

Productions often struggle with Macbeth’s character trajectory which is wavering and uncertain throughout the play so unlike most Shakespearian villains, Macbeth is plagued with deep conscience and is not a character who announces his dastardly resolution at the start as Iago or Richard III do while inviting the audience to sit back and watch a malicious plan unfold. Instead, Macbeth uses his soliloquies to examine his own feelings of guilt that constantly attack his purpose, preventing a linear progression from soldier to murderer to tyrant-king. And this is something that Farber’s approach recognises, building in these moments of doubt and confusion as Macbeth moves through the story.

It is also notable how Shakespeare uses ghosts in this play to enhance those questions of culpability and regret. Justin Kurzel’s exemplary 2015 film took a PTSD angle showing a warrior already steeped in the blood of men who died under his command in battle who reappear to him throughout. Farber’s production doesn’t emphasis this but notes the value of Banquo’s ghost in determining Macbeth’s mental state and as a manifestation of his guilt that rapidly affects his sanity. And while the ghost-figure in Hamlet appears not to his murderer but to the avenger as a prompt to action, here, Farber reinforces the connection between conscience and Macbeth’s fluctuating development that constantly second-guesses itself, retreating and advancing in ways that add depth to the production.

So, McArdle’s protagonist travels well through these complex stages, bringing out the changing psychology of the character which suits the intimate proximity of Farber’s cameras which weave in and around the action, barely acknowledging the theatrical space in which it takes place. It takes the audience right into the emotional and mental experience of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is the driving force – another clear decision – in the first part of the play, shaming her husband into action and questioning his manly resolution. Later, as the rewards of their horrific deed become tangible, McArdle opts for an instant plunge into madness that explores Macbeth’s fractured thinking while couching his subsequent tyranny in these terms, as a mind beyond reason.

Less successful is actually encouraging the audience to like or to care about Macbeth as an early antihero, and this interpretation though convincing in its presentation of the ambitious warrior driven to madness by his own lust for power and his failure to calculate the consequences of achieving it, doesn’t quite capture the comradely charisma that made Macbeth not only a beloved leader of men in battle but subsequently the obvious and entirely unchallenged choice for monarch following Malcolm’s flight into exile. There is something deeply alluring in the character of Macbeth, a man somehow not beyond redemption through his self-awareness, making him fascinating and enduringly appealing to actors and audiences centuries on.

This separates him from Claudius, Iago or Richard III who have a love-to-hate quality, but there is nothing of the soap opera villain about Macbeth and instead his very human failings give him some of the hero-protagonist characteristics of self-reflection, moral consciousness and even a linguistic dignity and gravitas that Shakespeare instils in his other leading characters that encourages the audience to contemplate aspects of their own behaviour. Despite an otherwise nuanced and thoughtful approach, McArdle’s Macbeth doesn’t quite reach that attractive leader of men quality and so the viewer is never fully on his side despite ourselves which makes a three hour performance hard to sustain.

There is also a lack of romantic chemistry between McArdle and Ronan that is quite exposed onscreen and, in fact, the performances are far stronger when the leads move apart in the second half of the production. Ronan, making her UK stage debut is clearly an accomplished film actor and brings some interesting depths to a slightly expanded role of Lady Macbeth that takes over occasional lines from other roles that reinforce the development of a character trumped by her own ambition. Ronan is too light ahead of Duncan’s murder, with insufficient grounding to talk of regicide in the same tone as planning a dinner party, but Ronan builds the character from there.

A very meaningful decision places her at the home of the Macduffs and forces her to witness a slaughter she has failed to prevent – much as Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is present at an equally brutal scene in Kurzel’s film. With little explanation in Shakespeare’s text for her madness, the slow detachment from her husband and her horrified reactions to his tyranny make perfect sense for her character and Ronan is excellent in presenting Lady Macbeth’s destruction as the consequence of unexpected and graphic violence emanating from her husband’s loss of control. Although the wife of a soldier in active wartime, Ronan makes clear the protected life she has led in comparison, with Duncan’s ruined corpse her first taste of the terrible acts that her husband is in theory far more used to ordering and seeing.

The onscreen experience gives the supporting roles plenty of space and there is greater clarity in the factions that spill out from Duncan’s murder with Malcolm and particularly Macduff given a solid purpose in trying to restore the balance in Scotland’s government. Emun Elliott s Macduff is particularly affecting, a once loyal friend turned bitter enemy. Showing the close and loving family playing together around the court and good friends with the central couple as well as the implication of a loving marriage with Akiya Henry’s Lady Macduff is well captured on camera and vital to explaining Macduff and Lady Macbeth’s development. And in a production in which male emotion is embraced, Elliott brings a visceral intensity to the scene where he learns of his family’s brutal demise that transcends the screen, displaying a considerable range and suggesting he might be well cast as Macbeth himself.

This approach to The Tragedy of Macbeth feels incredibly rich and, despite a slow start, once the first murder has taken place, the show builds considerable tension on screen. It’s not perfect but it is cinematic, and the Almeida’s decision to pause in-person performances for a week to produce this live stream has offered interesting possibilities in the staging and style that doesn’t need to find compromises that suit simultaneous presentation in two different forms. With live streaming potentially allowing more people to see the show internationally in one night than across the entire run, and the chance to rent it as an archive show subsequently, there may be different creative approaches to how hybrid theatre now operates in practice, but the model continues to evolve as venues find their feet.

The Tragedy of Macbeth was live streamed on 27-30 October and runs at the Almeida Theatre until 27 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Romeo & Juliet – National Theatre

Romeo & Juliet - National Theatre (by Rob Youngson)

Almost exactly a year ago the National Theatre unknowingly instigated a significant change in the way that we create and consume theatre when it made its 2011 production of One Man Two Guvnors freely available online for a few days. That day home digital theatre as we now know it was born and 16-weeks of archive showings followed, joined first by venues all over the country sharing pre-recorded material and before long the development and live streaming of brand new content. 12 months later hundreds of shows have been produced, some through established venues, others created by small companies seizing the opportunity to share their performances using video calling platforms and streaming channels, some live, some pre-recorded and made available on demand. In some ways theatre will never be the same.

The National Theatre has lead this kind of innovation before when it created its National Theatre Live service to record and distribute productions to cinemas. And in the last year, this new online community of supporters was officially recognised with the launch of its on-demand streaming service – National Theatre at Home – the natural culmination of this international interest in watching past productions. The National also advanced the creation and sharing of new commissions when lockdown regulations preemptively ended its runs of Death of England: Delroy and the second pantomime in its history Dick Whittington, both of which were streamed for free.

Now the National looks again to the future with a hybrid production of Romeo & Juliet conceived and filmed during November’s lockdown and broadcast in the UK on Sky Arts with a PBS American premiere to follow later in the month. Based on a production originally announced for last summer that was derailed by the pandemic, this hybrid film directed by Simon Godwin (Antony and Cleopatra) retains the services of intended stars Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor and in using the large Lyttleton Theatre, follows in the footsteps of Ian Rickson’s Uncle Vanya for the BBC and even more pertinently Curve Leicester’s Sunset Boulevard in Concert in acknowledging the theatre space that contains it.

What makes this beautiful 90-minute film especially interesting for theatre is its collaborative process of creation in which actors, director, creative team and crucially, the cinematographer worked together throughout the rehearsal and filming period to develop a vision for a piece that manages to be inherently theatrical and a successful movie experience. This combination of quite different technical skills and requirements is a potentially exciting byproduct of filmed theatre where different kinds of creative input and the development of transferable skills can shift perspectives on how a show can use different narrative and visual techniques to tell a story.

Adapted by Emily Burns for the screen, this production manages to successfully combine both strands of Romeo & Juliet, creating a love story that is believable despite its slight premise and a context of simmering violence in which the two families openly contend and it is rare to see both so well conceived in the same production. In fact, what sets the National’s new version apart is just how inextricably linked they are, moving beyond a surface reading of the text in which the lovers are separated by family enmity, to demonstrate throughout that the emotional extremes that project the ferocity of Romeo and Juliet’s love and the burning hate between Capulet and Montague are equivalent and unruled passions with only one deadly outcome.

This darkness imbues the 95-minute film from its earliest moments as a cast of players gather in a National Theatre rehearsal room to perform this story for themselves alone. As Lucian Msamati’s Friar begins the play’s famous prologue, scenes from the inevitable future flash across the screen, anticipating what is to come but also giving this production a driving predestination. It is a technique the film uses in several crucial moments as both Romeo and Juliet foresee momentary snatches of their future echoing back to them as physical actions in the present such as Juliet lamenting Romeo’s departure, laying across the bed with an arm outstretched just as she will a few hours ahead when taking her fateful sleeping draft.

In slimming this lengthy play to a curt running time, Burns has had to jettison vast amounts of text particularly from the secondary characters and instead hones in on the initiation and development of what is here an intense love story, though even the soliloquies are reduced largely to the essential narrative requirements and well-known lines. But it has been skillfully done and Burns never loses the psychological purpose of the characters or the complexity of their interactions with their families or the social, religious and political structures of the city.

That this version of Verona is a savage place is abundantly clear, and while the editing choices mean that Mercutio and Tybalt in particular are dispatched far too soon and with so little time to give further substance to their individual personalities, Burns’s approach shuts down all avenues of escape or hope for the lovers unable to turn to their cold families or flick-knife wielding friends for assistance. Even the comedy of the Nurse is mostly put aside in order to imprison the leads and drive them to destruction.

As a first time film director with extensive understanding of staging and eliciting the emotional complexity of Shakespeare’s characters, Godwin has achieved something remarkable in this movie by marrying his understanding of stage intimacy with the much smaller scale projection that a camera demands. Some of our most creative directors regularly and very successfully move between theatre and film, and the influence of both forms of art can be seen in the complexity of the work they produce. Comparing Sam Mendes work on The Ferryman or The Lehman Trilogy and 1917 it is possible to see how they influence each other, a feeling of orchestration where Mendes is able to control the grand narrative while still drawing-out the intricacy of the human stories within it. Danny Boyle has a similar vision in his stage and film work, and comparing Frankenstein with Steve Jobs there is an intuitive understanding of visual design and the impact of theatrical spaces that is enhanced by a considered technical understanding of lighting, perspective and narrative devices.

Godwin has developed a similar eye and uses the theatre space here in quite an unusual way to create the scale of theatre with the proximity of bodies engaged in acts of affection, love and destruction. The conceit in this Romeo & Juliet is that the rehearsal room and its plain-clothed actors becomes the colourful world of Verona although Godwin holds back in marking this change until the party scene at the Capulets where the lovers first encounter one another. And while the actors have transitioned fully into their characters only to return briefly in the film’s closing scene, the stage area still quite deliberate forms the boundaries of their existence as Shakespeare implies in several plays – the opening Chrous of Henry V being the most famous.

Filmed in the Lyttelton Theatre, you will be hard pressed to recognise much of it, the playing space demarcated by iron doors that are the limits of Verona from which the costumed Romeo is eventually exiled into an adjoining but empty ante-room where he has no means of escape. That crucial scenes take place amidst the scenery struts in a thin corridor and on metal gantries cleverly imply how tangential the business of the family rivalry becomes to the lovers whose own scenes are fully staged in realised rooms – they are each other’s reality and while Romeo in particular traverses these other spaces, it is in these other more tangible locations that sadly for his friends his priorities, mind and purpose belong.

When Godwin shows the lovers together it is with close-ups so tight the viewer is almost within their embraces, the fierceness of their passion – as with his Antony and Cleopatra – unbounded by reason or parental order. But in what can often be a relationship that is hard to invest in, the proximity of Godwin’s lens gives these scenes a different level of intensity, an all or nothing consuming purpose that makes the brief time they have known one another seem irrelevant. Their relationship is desperate, urgent and ungovernable but surrounded by danger that is reflected in Godwin’s shot choices that build on his own experience as a theatre director.

Visually, this version of Romeo & Juliet is incredibly stylish but design is used in ways that enhances the story – a Soutra Gilmour trademark – using particular colours and tonal palettes. Romeo is always dressed in a pale hues with white, beige and brown that reflect the softer, dreamier nature of his personality while Juliet is given shades of emerald green primarily that set her against the magical masked ball and later the simpler tones of the other characters. The production is beautifully lit in a way that only stage lighting can ever achieve, contrasting the warmth and moonlit romance of the brief courtship with the stark daylight that intrudes so cruelly as the machinations of their families comes between them.

Jessie Buckley is a remarkable Juliet, not the childlike and romantic interpretation we often see but an intense and almost crazed interpretation that has a genuine maturity of feeling. This Juliet understands what is at stake in every moment of the play and Romeo’s appearance taps into a deep-rooted need within her that she is unable to control. There are hints that the coldness of her mother and flustering nurse have left Juliet craving a true affinity but Buckley finds levels of anxiety, fear and almost fanaticism in Juliet’s connection to Romeo, her mind spinning with worry that he won’t arrange their marriage and later almost clawing at herself as she becomes hemmed in by the proposed match with Paris. Buckley’s Juliet seems always on the edge of despair, not exactly fragile but driven by a gnawing mania that takes her towards destruction like Cathy in Wuthering Heights. There is clearly a Lady Macbeth at some point in her future.

Josh O’Connor’s Romeo is less soulfully troubled but is equally thwarted by the interventions of fate. His own family connection is downplayed here so instead Romeo is struggling to balance the aggressive manly posturing expected of him and the softer feelings he has first for Rosaline and then for Juliet. O’Connor is particular good at these tender-hearted moments as the brooding Romeo of the opening scene evolves into the intoxicated lover, speaking the verse with real feeling that brings a credibility to their love-at-first-sight relationship. We see O’Connor’s Romeo act impulsively in his love for Juliet and in defence of his friend, both of which remain entirely consistent with his gentler nature, while the consequences of his rashness are convincingly depicted when his marriage to Juliet becomes his last refuge and hope.

Although the supporting cast have relatively less screen time this cast of National Theatre regulars amply flesh-out Veronese society. Msamati has incredible gravitas as the slightly sinister Friar Laurence who defies protocol by aiding the lovers while concocting all manner of alarming potions in his cell, but there is just enough affection for the couple in Msamati’s performance that makes his support convincing while amplifying the conspiratorial nature of the play that also puts him at risk if discovered. Tamsin Greig is brilliant as a calculating Lady Capulet whose softly spoken steel is enough to hold Tybalt (David Judge) back from murdering Romeo at the party and drips sufficient poison in her daughter’s ear to force her hand. We see too little of Deborah Findlay’s nurse, Adrian Lester’s furiously exasperated Prince and Fisayo Akinade’s Mercutio but each adds much to the texture of the overall production despite their limited screentime.

With Director of Photography Tim Sidell and Composer Michael Bruce in the rehearsal room, this hybrid theatre and film production has been a fascinating experiment resulting in a smart, interesting and entirely collaborative piece of art. The influence of digital theatre productions will be long, felt not only in the continuation of streaming in some form and the creation of blended movies like this one, but the techniques and approaches developed together. That’s not to say that all theatre productions will overtly incorporate filmic devices but through such open collaboration as the National has demonstrated here, directors, actors, designers and cinematographers learn from one another. From these perspectives new methods of storytelling are being born and it will be fascinating to see where it takes us.

Romeo & Juliet was created by the National Theatre and screened on Sky Arts on 4th April with a PBS screening the USA on 23 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

New Perspectives on Chekhov: A Three Play Analysis

Uncle Vanya, The Seagull and Three Sisters

The new decade has brought us many unexpected challenges, panic buying across the country, a global pandemic that will last many months and, in the last two weeks, a consequential redefining of all our social and business interactions. But some changes have been for the better and this year three overlapping Chekhov productions have started to redefine the audiences’ relationship with a playwright whose work has been, at best, challenging. Three Sisters at the National Theatre, Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter and The Seagull at the Playhouse Theatre have all taken very different approaches to reworking Chekhov all with considerable success, together creating insight into a writer whose emotional and psychological brilliance has often been subverted for visual accuracy.

Each of these productions has taken a very different approach; Three Sisters adapted by Inua Ellams relocated Chekhov’s drama to the Biafran war in the 1960s, Conor McPherson’s Uncle Vanya remained within the limits of a nineteenth-century pseudo-Russian location, while The Seagull took a timeless approach of modern dress and minimal scenery. Yet, together these productions have much in common, sweeping away the overly didactic and weighty nature of costume drama to focus on the relationships between characters and the driving energy of the text, resulting in a more comprehensive understanding of Chekhov’s major plays that brings fresh insight and relevance to a writer whose plays have often felt rather dry.

Location and Staging

Location is extremely important to Chekhov with the three plays in question all taking place on a country estate among largely middle-class landowning people all desperate to be anywhere else. But in imagining these locations for the stage, most earlier approaches have adopted very similar themes, placing the characters in wooden rooms that reflect the shabby gentility of their rural settings with limited access to the outside world and heavy furniture that almost always includes a rocking chair – this visual shorthand has been consistent across UK and international productions from Russian and Eastern Europe that have regularly visited the capital. This attempt to preserve Chekhov in a pseudo-Russian aspic has reduced his plays to melodramatic agri-dramas where farming equipment and techniques have taken precedence over family and story.

Ellams took the most radical approach to location by moving his version of Three Sisters, directed by Nadia Fall, away from the nineteenth-century to demonstrated how readily Chekhov’s emotional perspective and understanding of human nature grafts onto an entirely different era and continent. The context of 1960s war in Africa was outstandingly realised by designer Katrina Lindsay who created a beautiful and chic villa in woods and reeds that dominated the lengthy Lyttelton Stage. A far cry from the drab wooden interiors of previous productions, this rotating house became a sanctuary as the Nigerian Civil War raged outside, emphasising so clearly characters’ attachment to home, place and memory in physical form.

Compare this to designer Rae Smith’s semi-traditional approach to Uncle Vanya that stayed within the confines of the nineteenth-century but broke free of earlier styles with a painterly vision that felt rich in tone and texture. Set in a single well lived in room and directed with sensitivity by Ian Rickson, Smith’s design eschewed the bland wood for a more tumbledown approach, a fading manor house filled with objects from family life overflowing from every shelf bordered by a forest visible through the large windows that cast light across the room as beautifully as a Vermeer painting. Somehow in this still traditional but more open environment, the humour and emotional interior of the characters was freed-up and allowed to fill the large room across four Acts of this Olivier-nominated drama.

Soutra Gilmour’s set for The Seagull is quite different again but has the same effect of clearing the cobwebs of traditional location to focus on the emotional and psychological interaction between the cast. Using a chipboard box, a single table and a set of plastic chairs, there is nothing that visually indicates time, place or era. The actors are dressed in modern everyday clothes that look like their own, with no attempt to create anything as false as a set of ‘costumes’, nothing implies the magical landscape of lake and stars that grounds the play in its very particular setting and so potently affects the characters’ romantic impulses. But the effect is the opposite, and like Smith and Fall, Gilmour has created a blank canvas upon which the real meaning of Chekhov’s text is finally released from the trappings of nineteenth-century dresses and claustrophobically designed rooms.

Character Psychology

The characters in each of these three plays are trapped – a Chekovian standard – not just physically unable to leave their location due to war, pecuniary distress or as for Irina in The Seagull the failures of a limited ferry service, but also in emotional holding-patterns which the activity of the play temporarily releases before returning them to their original state, often no better and sometimes only a little worse for their temporary engagement with the wider world. These events are by their nature tragic in the lives of the individual but are often hard to connect with as an audience member, with translations and directional choices unable to help the viewer navigate a series of events to the beating heart of the work.

The three plays presented so far this year have changed that, pulling down the wall between setting and meaning that has proved illuminating in terms of textual excavation. Uncle Vanya has achieved this most successfully within its traditionalist approach by drawing out a new humour in Conor McPherson’s translation that humanised the familiar interactions between siblings, family and neighbours and brought the audience more effectively into the story than ever before. The caustic and sometimes ridiculous relationship between Toby Jones’s Vanya and Ciaran Hinds’s pompous Professor became a fascinating clash of education, ambition and long-held rivalry for attention that spoke volumes about the long-term frustrations bubbling beneath the surface of the siblings, while the romantic yearning Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya expressed for Doctor Astrov was shown through age and attitude to be entirely one-sided, almost (but not quite) comic in its unlikeliness but nonetheless meaningful for a young woman with little hope of finding happiness or choice.

Ellams adaptation of Three Sisters focused far more on the ennui of confinement and while war raged a few miles away, the constricted sisters are in some ways a stage beyond the inhabitants of Vanya’s farm, their choices made, embedded and cannot be undone whether through unequal marriage as for Natalie Simpson’s Nne Chukwu (the reworked Masha) or desperation for status and recognition as sister-in-law Ronke Adékoluejo found which they must now try to bear. It was an adaptation that emphasised male character purpose bringing the notions of the military and domestic together but it well balanced the competing forces that drive individual personalities including the need to perform specific gender roles, to feel love or need from another person and, again, the strength of family ties to hold things together when all other hope or normalcy is gone.

The Seagull is a far more openly romantic play that either of the other productions which Anya Reiss’s new version drew particular attention to as characters actively sacrifice themselves to destructive forms of love with little regard for the consequences. This approach hones in on the numerous romantic entanglements in the play and exposes the duel excitement and pain they cause for characters such as Tamsin Outhwaite’s Polina, who like Nne / Masha in Three Sisters is caught in a loveless marriage and clings only to a passion for another as her only sustenance. There is a sense in Reiss’s text of how the naivety of early infatuation is cruelly exposed to harm, and we see through Emilia Clarke’s Nina the downward spiral this creates for a woman reduced and tainted by the societal consequences of unguarded passion, while Daniel Monks’s full-bloodied Konstantin is bent on self-destruction when his unrequited love for Nina takes its inevitable course. In all of these adaptations, it is the richness of this multi-character psychology that has more fully allowed the audience to see beneath the period surface of Chekhov’s work and finally feel its range and human depth.

Finding Comedy and Tragedy in Chekhov

Chekhov has rarely been celebrated as a humorist and while he subtly mocks the stiff social conventions that have so often been a feature of adaptations, this new raft of productions have showcased a breadth and depth in his writing that has warmed each of the theatres they have appeared in. Bloated pomposity and ego have been beautifully skewered whether manifest as The Professor in Uncle Vanya or the serious military men buzzing around the Nigeria home of the Three Sisters, we are finally seeing Chekhov’s skill with irony and caricature as he uses these gatherings of overly-familiar groups to draw out the silliness of human interaction and the nonsense of the modes of politeness that underpin class and tradition.

But by clinging to such expectations, none of Chekhov’s characters are allowed to escape tragedy, not tragedy on the grand scale which brings universal death and destruction, but what Chekhov is doing is exposing the tiny tragedies in everyday life that will leave his characters no better placed at the end of the play than at the beginning, that going through the clash of personal and external which each character represents will not ultimately save or change them. These recent productions have conveyed this so well as Richard Armitage’s superb Doctor Astrov opens his heart much as Clarke’s Nina or Simpson’s Nne Chukwu do to a doomed passion that temporarily erupts which must be internalised, repacked and restrained by the end of the play, returning each of these characters to lonely isolation and emotional sterility. In all three of these performances Chekhov’s understanding and charting of how people must survive when all hope is extinguished has been extremely moving.

And although Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull have taken quite different approaches to presenting and elucidating Chekhov’s themes there is a consistency in the way these Directors and their teams have mined the text to more fully understand the psychological drivers within the community of characters Chekhov employs to focus not just on the foregrounded individuals but those who comprise the wider context and how together they are all helping to make each other miserable. All of this is resulting in an exceptionally insightful period of shows that are unveiling a playwright whose work has that timeless and universal quality so redolent of theatre classics, easily transposed to different eras, contexts and situations while still yielding considerable meaning for an audience. As our theatres recover in the coming months let us hope for less period woodwork and far more heart and humour because Chekhov’s secrets are finally emerging.

Uncle Vanya was due to play until 2 May and The Seagull until 30 May. Three Sisters ended in February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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