Tag Archives: Sule Rimi

Blues for an Alabama Sky – National Theatre

A lack of choice connects female stories across the ages as women find themselves hemmed in by a lack of opportunity, access to education and agency to determine their own path. Some of those structures are patriarchal, others economic and social, but all of them restrict and confine, ensuring women become something other than themselves. Looking across cultural representations of women in the past 100 years it is possible to draw connections between characters such as Hester Collier in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, Patrick Hamilton’s Jenny from Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, even up to Kyo Choi’s Kim Han-See in The Apology, all of whom are in pursuit of a fantasy life that will never be fulfilled. Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, opening at the National Theatre this week, adds another unknowingly tragic heroine to that list, singer Angel who will grasp at an opportunity to get out of Harlem in 1930.

The concept of the American Dream and the extent to which it ever applied to women is something that Cleage explores in her play as every character pursues something beyond themselves, something better that will fundamentally alter the daily grind and transform them. Written in 1995, Cleage’s play draws heavily on the intimate boarding house and lodgings worlds of Rattigan and Hamilton in which urban, financially straightened lives are stacked together in densely packed neighbourhoods. And like these earlier works, Cleage emphasises the individual humanity and consequent value of the decent, hardworking community she depicts in a progressive piece that looks to personal attributes rather than limited religious and moral codes imposed by others to shape our responses to her cast.

Cleage sets the action primarily in a single two-room apartment over several weeks which becomes the focus of interaction between neighbours, lovers and friends navigating the next stage of their lives during the Great Depression. And Cleage quickly establishes a group of forward-looking dreamers, people seen as radical in quite different ways by their own community, sometimes dangerously so and not for the reasons we might expect. The context is constrictive and mundane – economic downturn, prohibition and high unemployment (symbolised by the lead characters losing their jobs at the start of the play) – but the lives within are nonetheless vibrant, full of possibility for bettering themselves and their local area while embracing the growing devotion to popular culture that provides a two folder escape – one in their imagination and one in reality.

Angel and her best friend Guy are characters whose dream life and real life could unite, bringing them both the recognition and glamour they crave. Guy’s work as a designer for cabaret and performance artists is sustained by the dream of working for Josephine Baker in Paris to whom he has an unexplained connection. But it drives his narrative, allowing him to indulge in the fantasy of working for her, which he cannot be swayed from, while practically working towards it with a job that puts him at the centre of a creative local scene of parties, drinking and affairs which simultaneously becomes a refuge from the daily grind. Angel meanwhile takes on work as a singer to support her dream of becoming a more famous singer. Yet her dream is compromised by an innate recognition that she will never achieve it, and instead pursues a course of survival that results in more questionable behaviour. Is Angel an inescapable and inevitable product of her gendered circumstances, Cleage askes, or does she actively sabotage herself to ensure those dreams always fail?

Throughout Blues for an Alabama Sky, Angel is a character with a notable duality. There is a deep vulnerability stemming from the knowledge that her body as much as her voice has sustained her, attracting a series of ‘gangsters’ and inappropriate men who only maintain a passing interest beyond the instant gratification of being her lover. And Angel actively seems to be looking for love, each encounter beginning with the hope that, like Sally Bowles, maybe this time it will work out. All of this pain makes Angel such a powerful blues singer, leaving the audience to hope that she will make it after all.

Like Rattigan’s Hester, Hamilton’s Jenny and indeed Isherwood’s Sally, Angel is under the illusion that she has choice, that she can direct and shape the future before her. Hester believes that if Freddy could just return her feelings with the same fervor, rendering all other difference between them immaterial, everything will be fine; Jenny is looking for the next man who can give her the material comforts she deserves and Sally too is looking for something real, that the next man will see her for the first time. Angel likewise falsely clings to the notion that traditional respectability – husband, family and home – will somehow snuff out all the other things she has had to do to achieve them, that if a man can love her enough, everything else will be insignificant, even her own desires. That each of these women is trapped into dependence on a man to rescue them is entirely a product of their society and the expectations placed on women to conform even when they are already living outside those structures. The tragedy comes from the failure of men to accept them and how decidedly that destroys their hopes.

A further tragedy in Angel’s character, and perhaps the most important moral point of Cleage’s work, is that Angel has gradations of selfishness that steal her happy ending, that she is prepared to stomp over anyone to get what she thinks she wants. In contrast to the behaviour of other characters, Angel uses people, lies and even betrays herself in order to become the potential wife that beau Leland may accept. And in the process she tears down her friend Guy in order to do it. These are survival techniques of a women with only herself to rely on, but in using her body to secure a different kind of status that she hopes will bring respectability and stability – regardless of his own questionable views – her body creates a response of its own, one which Angel coldly manages when a better opportunity presents itself.

Contrast this with Cleage’s parallel creation, Delia, Guy’s neighbour, who forms a counterpoint to the central pairing and in many ways is the pure heart of Blues for an Alabama Sky. Delia is a prototype for women’s rights, recognising the distressing lives of her community and prepared to face personal approbation and resistance by opening a Family Planning clinic. Though herself a virgin, as Guy discovers early on, Delia is an advocate of choice that will give women biological and economic freedom, and the play follows her progress through religious and medical objections, creating a character who is constructively forward-thinking and virtuous in her motives.

But Delia is given complexity through her growing attraction to local doctor Sam and her uncomplicated affection and acceptance of her neighbours. Non-judgmental, inclusive and encouraging, Delia experiences difficulty throughout the play quite differently to Angel and that treatment comes from character’s essential goodness and desire to contribute something beyond herself. The outcomes of the play, though tragic for the women in various ways, reflect a moral judgement by the writer who sets quite different paths for them both – Delia afforded true and reciprocated feeling that expands her emotional experience as a woman while Angel is left almost exactly where we found her; perhaps a little harder, more jaded but about to embark on the same destructive cycle.

The male characters by contrast are notably defined by their location, Guy and Sam products of Harlem while lover Leland bringing a darker cloud emanating from his Alabama moral and deeply Christian views that cause significant disruption within the group, shaping the plays central questions about appropriate ways to live. Men too are limited by their world and while it is perhaps too easy to suggest they suffer differently to women, Cleage looks at questions of masculinity and expectation in urban environments. That Guy represents a challenge to the traditional notions of manliness which Leland symbolises is one of Cleage’s most engaging themes as the two contend for a kind of primacy that manifests in a fight for Angel’s soul.

Guy is the kinder man which is reflected in Cleage’s perspective on female agency in the play, as he supports the development of his friend while Leland actively seeks to limit her. Sam likewise plays a role in facilitating Delia’s success, a meeting of minds that takes place in an enclosed but open-minded community where a modern morality and approach to sex, work and shared living finds itself hampered by traditional regulation and attitudes. Leland is the faultline along which these two worlds meet and collide, bringing dangerous but decisive consequences for the Harlem set.

The first half of the play is, by extension, very character and scenario focused, and while it establishes the narrative and motivational drivers, Cleage spends a long time setting-up the parameters in which the more traditional drama will then play out in the final third of the action, the pace of which Director Lynette Linton manages really well. Some may find it slow and ponderous while others will be fascinated by the ways in which Cleage constructs these lives and starts to draw the audience into their story, only realising in the final scenes how the long work of Act One created investment in the happiness and success of these neighbours, and how affectingly Cleage has created their circumstances and choices.

Samira Wiley captures all the contradictions in Angel’s character, the love of the party and that underlying fear that it is almost over for her that brings out a kind of desperation. Angel is deeply cynical, almost ground down in her belief that dreams don’t come true and the actor develops her pragmatic, sometimes cruel and headstrong side as she sets her sights on a more achievable outcome, all the while Wiley’s maintains Angel’s refusal to accept this is not what she truly wants. Ronke Adekoluejo’s Delia is a complete contrast with plenty of contradictions that help to make the character more rounded. Adekoluejo makes her shy and determined, innocent but knowledgeable about the medical needs of women, radical in her vision for the community and acceptance of others but looking for a traditional loving relationship, all of which Adekoluejo makes relatable and credible.

Giles Terera has a very busy rep season ahead, rehearsing the leading role in Othello opening in November as well as playing the flamboyant Guy here. Terera’s sensitive performance is very smart, taking a character who lives a bigger life than the others, filled with showbusiness parties and aspirations but still making him vulnerable, grounded and loyal to the people he cares about. There are some great scenes with Osy Ikhile’s Leland as the two men prowl around one another, subtly glaring as their very different outlooks clash, while Sule Rimi places Sam somewhere between the two, rational about the everyday needs of his patients but equally drawn to the possibility of finally meeting someone to share with it.

Staged on Frankie Bradshaw’s superb rotating house set, which echoes Tom Scutt’s excellent semi-translucent design for the 2016 production of The Deep Blue Sea, it creates a sense of lives packed in and overlapping. Blues for an Alabama Sky has much to say about the price of giving up on a dream and why it is often a woman who has to compromise. All of Angel’s choices are ultimately taken from her and while others may find a different future at the end of the play, like Hester, Jenny and Sally, Angel can never be anything else.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is at the National Theatre until 5 November with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Jitney – Old Vic

At heart August Wilson’s writing is part of broader tradition of family plays in American theatre and while his subjects are not necessarily the traditional groups of relatives gathered around the table for a fateful weekend or forced to reassess their lives in the wake of tragedy (such as Apologia or Appropriate), Wilson builds rudimentary families, often groups of men drawn together by their jobs whose complex dynamics, loaded interactions and status conflicts reflect the conventions of those often grand narratives about family that US playwrights return to again and again. Wilson tempers this solemnity with an examination of working class aspiration, history and hardship, placing his group often on the cusp of social change where the mixed age range of his characters brings both promise and disillusionment.

Jitney, revived at the Old Vic in a production by Tinuke Craig and officially opening later this week, is a piece that took the best part of 40 years to make it to Broadway in late 2016 after decades of smaller productions around America and at the National Theatre in 2001. Part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh collection, Jitney‘s concern with the cost of gentrification and the local heritage destroyed in the name of progress exists through the interactions of eight men, mostly taxi drivers and a regular customer, over the course of three days in which their livelihoods and their neighbourhood come under threat from redevelopers.

Thematically, this is a play about the black working class struggle, not directly against racism although much can be inferred from the context and conversations, but with their economic and personal circumstances as individuals try to get by while putting some kind of stake in the ground in order to claim even the smallest patch of it for themselves. Cab office boss Jim Becker is the manifestation of that desire for goodness and decency, of working hard to provide for his family and playing along with the system all to earn a fragment of financial and moral independence. What the sacrifices and endeavours of men like Becker are ultimately worth is the question that Wilson poses in Jitney as this quite diverse group face a collective ending of the disharmonious life they have known together.

In this sense, Jitney also links to more recent plays like Lynne Nottage’s Sweat that examines the destructive consequences of redundancy and deindustrialisation in a rust belt town with no other options, and even to David Hare’s latest Straight Line Crazy, still playing at the Bridge Theatre, which takes the opposite perspective to Wilson, focusing on the architecture of city planning in New York in the mid-twentieth century – concluding shortly before the period in which Jitney is set – that tore through working class districts to create freeways. Together these works comment on the powerlessness of communities to resist what becomes an inevitable future, but in giving them a voice, Wilson expands on the rooting of these groups in quite geographically-specific areas, looking back at the lives they have known but also forwards to the albeit limited expectations of what they want to become.

And to do this, Wilson creates a pseudo-familial structure, essentially trapping eight characters together in the same room for nearly three hours of performance. They come and go, collect fares for what are perhaps infeasibly short journeys, but are continually drawn back together to their work hub, a simple common room office where they wait for the phone call that will take them out again, applying the democratic ‘cab rank’ rule to maintain order and fairness. It is a business venture that Wilson deliberately gives them all a stake in, a kind of co-op of independent cabbies headed by Becker who collects subs once a month, sets fare pricing and the firm rules but each man owns his own car and, in a crucial scene in the second half, they make important decisions collectively.

Within that sometimes quite loose structure, Jitney becomes a fluid character study exploring the personalities and often fraught interactions between the men who spend too much time in the same place but really know very little about each other. They gossip, speculate and spread hearsay, they bicker and judge, there are small scale confederacies, violent altercations, resentments and cruelty while Wilson peppers the discussions with plenty of secrets, lies and revelations that emerge across nearly three hours of performance all of which are typical of the family dynamic play and culminates in a growing emotional connection to the group that somehow weathers its many storms together.

Craig’s production is particularly good at creating that complex interaction, the bristling tension between particular individuals whose combustible personalities flare and rage across the play, while balancing that with the more experienced old hands whose attempts at diplomacy and ability to take life as it comes create interesting tonal shifts that Craig manages especially well. But with lots of people to introduce and a faithful version of the script, it takes a little too long for the audience to settle into the show, to understand who everybody is and connect with the story arc – and even to hear it fully for a time. Jitney has two of these – the imminent closure of the cab office and the return of Becker’s son from a 20-year term in prison but neither generates sufficient heat in the 90-minute first half to give the production any anticipatory sense of direction or feeling of impending catastrophe to drive it purposefully forward.

Much of that is Wilson’s fault, a long opening scene introducing the characters in quick turn arounds as well as their working practices and routines becomes almost redundant with little of what is said or seen having any major significance to the plot. And there is a tendency to linger a touch too long in some of the duologues that cut through the fast-paced work of the cab rank, slowing the action to focus more intently on a particular interaction and the lives it represents. These begin as gripping and insightful scenes but can become circular in their discussion, occasionally repeating and verifying information the audience already has which unnecessarily prolongs more than one scenario.

The final third of the play is tighter as internal and external events come to a head but even here the balance of drama is a little off kilter with more time devoted to duologues, yet a major plot development occurs rapidly offstage between scenes with little opportunity to fully absorb its aftermath or even to question the motive of the character involved. In a story where relatively little actually happens and with not much plot as such, it seems a shame not to investigate this part of the play in more detail or to understand any potential ambiguities in what has been reported. Did things coincidentally happen in this way or, given the difficulties and pressure placed on the individual, was there greater agency at work? Just bad luck and a neat ending to the show, or a pre-determined act of sacrifice and despair?

Wil Johnson’s pivotal performance as Becker leaves you to wonder about the effects of this experience on the most decent man in the office. Striving all his life for the minimum comforts of job, home and family, Becker is a character without unlikely ambition, wanting nothing more than daily stability and the chance to give his child a little more than he had. Johnson has some terrific interactions with returning son Booster (Leemore Marrett Jr) and his fellow cabbies who break his simple rules and cause discord in the office. There is a grand tragedy to his life as a result, filled with the anguish and disappointment of the last 20 years which, for all his efforts and desire for independence, leave him unable to control the wider socio-economic forces shaping his life and narrowing his choices – a key theme for all characters in Jitney – that add particular ambiguity to the play’s conclusion.

Sule Rimi is equally commanding as the volatile Turnbo, a maverick creation whose comedic persona reveals an underlying tendency to violence. We learn relatively little about Turnbo’s history but he imposes himself on this office, still part of the family unit but handled carefully by the others. Although not by Solomen Israel’s Darnell known as “Youngblood” whose altercation with Turnbo over gossip simmers throughout the play. Like Becker, Youngblood is looking for a stable path ahead and while Israel hides that under layers of bravado and machismo, there is a melancholy beneath that partly emerges from those around him who think he’s too young to throw his life away driving jitneys but also from the character’s own fears about life’s continually moving goalposts that might trap him here forever.

This is an almost exclusively male world including Geoff Aymer’s rational old hand Doub, Nnabiko Ejimofor’s street smart Shealey who utilises the office for his romantic exchanges and gambling business, as well as Tony Marshall’s alcoholic Fielding clinging on by a thread while pining the absence of his errant wife 22 years on. Amongst this Leanne Henlon makes quite the impression as Darnell’s wife Rena who arrives to make her views about her man’s behaviour known to him. Henlon’s performance is refreshing, cutting through the fog of masculinity to drag them back to the reality of family and commitment, expounding on the wider consequences for their lives beyond the cab office. In a couple of great scenes, Henlon establishes Rena’s own desire for self-improvement and a refusal to take any nonsense as she bats away interference from the others and makes you long for a few more female characters to keep the men in check.

Staged by Alex Lowde in a representative but realistic space, there is a deliberate sense of imprisonment, even claustrophobia in the 70s bleached wood panelled cabin with no windows beyond a frosted glass pane in the door. No one can see out or in, disconnecting the characters from the real changes happening around them – given a literal interpretation by Lowde in a large frame around the action onto which Ravi Deepres’s video projects the Pittsburg streets and a dominant city plan that shifts from construction to a sea of new builds after the interval. All of this reiterating the blindness of these men to what’s really happening to their city and their livelihoods.

Jitney is a long night, one that could afford to cut 20 minutes or more of material without affecting the overall story, leaving a slightly slicker, more impactful piece behind that doesn’t compromise character insight. There are real moments of magic in Jitney, filled with the sorrow of endings for all of the people passing through the cab office. What even happens to their small community business in the end, Wilson places that in a context of huge and unstoppable change that this little patch of the past cannot resist forever. Something is coming for all of them and, whether they see it or not, Wilson knows the battle is lost before it begins – that is the power of Jitney and the great tragedy that Becker’s car service will never escape.

Jitney is at the Old Vic until 9 July with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Force Majeure – Donmar Warehouse

Force Majeure - Donmar Warehouse (by Marc Brenner)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Measure for Measure – Donmar Warehouse

Measure for Measure - Donmar Warehouse

As Josie Rourke enters her final months as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, schemes like Barclays Front Row and now Klaxon offering low-priced tickets to often sold-out shows, along with a focus on female-led theatre will be her legacy. Fitting then that part of her directorial swansong should be an inspired and experimental take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In a year of revelations about the abuse of power and sexual misconduct, the timing couldn’t be better for this intriguing tale of blackmail, morality and duty.

Gender-blind casting has becoming fairly standard in recent years, at the most basic level giving female actors the chance to play some of drama’s greatest roles, while also offering alternative perspectives on familiar scenarios. But one thing you never see is the same character simultaneously from the male and female perspective, so while a female Henry V might be intriguing, audiences cannot compare this instantly with an equivalent male performance and must wait until some other production comes along. Josie Rourke’s Measure for Measure changes all that.

On the same night, either side of the interval, the roles of Angelo and Isabella are shared by Jack Lowden and Hayley Atwell, while the production also divides its time between the early seventeenth century and 2018. There were various possibilities for this approach – the actors could play the roles on alternate nights as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller did with Frankenstein, or the swap could simply happen half way through the play. Instead, O’Rourke plumps for the most unusual option, slashing the text to a core 90 minutes and playing it through twice, that is exactly the same text once with Lowden as Angelo and Atwell as Isabella, and after the interval, playing it all again with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines (but called Isabella) and Lowden performing as Isabella (but called Angelo). It’s a risky strategy with a show that ultimate clocks in at around three hours, but it’s a daring endeavour that is richly rewarding.

The Duke of Vienna decides to take a holiday and leave his reluctant friend Angelo in charge, making him the city’s leading judge. A pure and moral region, Claudio is accused of fornication and the sober Angelo sentences him to death. Encouraged to plead for his life, Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice nun, duly visits Angelo who is instantly captivated by her, offering to spare her brother’s life in return for her virginity. Forced to choose between her body and her soul, can Angelo’s terrible power be bested?

The easy abuse of power and how it changes people’s behaviour is a core theme for Shakespeare, throwing the individual’s moral code into flux. Most often for murderous or greedy ends, characters pursue power to alter their own status, to win a higher position in government as happens in Hamlet and Macbeth or to jealously disrupt the purer life of someone else as in Othello. In Measure for Measure, power is wielded purely for sexual purposes, Angelo’s conquest of Isabella won’t later affect the materiality of his circumstances in any way, he propositions her as a temporary distraction, more an exercise in ego than a strategy for higher gain – themes that will resonant strongly with the events of the last year.

All of this comes across really strongly in the first half of the Donmar’s production, largely divested of its subplots, the audience is asked to focus sharply on the central theme of moral and bodily corruption in a show that asks big questions about trading one for the other. But Rourke ensures it’s not an open and shut case, she wants us to consider the opposing positions of Angelo and Isabella, to ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation and to think about the ways in which morality has changed in 400 years. Is Isabella a paragon, a saintly figure to be admired, or is her refusal to succumb to Angelo’s desires, and thereby assure her brother’s death, a cruel and stubborn act?

In this first section, the sympathies deliberately sway. Jack Lowden’s Angelo is an interesting proposition, a man seemingly driven by right and duty, applying the law as it stands but without compassion or clemency. His first encounter with Isabella clearly ignites a rapid and unexpected passion that he is unused to experiencing, and Lowden makes us believe he genuinely falls for her – it appears to mean far more to him than just having the upper hand.

But Lowden never lets us forget that how Angelo translates that emotion is monstrous, however genuine his feeling for Isabella, the scene in which he makes his intentions clear is deeply uncomfortable. As he looms in on her, riven with lust, she comprehends his purpose exactly, and Atwell is superb in relaying the powerlessness and fear that Isabella feels in that moment, frozen and shaking with tears that becomes a striking reminder that Angelo’s unrequited love for her can never excuse his invasive manipulation of her body and mind.

As the story is resolved the production flashes forward to 2018 and replays the first scene again, this time with Atwell reading Angelo’s lines but named as Isabella. After the interval, the play resumes from the condemnation of Claudio, and Atwell’s approach is slightly different to Lowden’s – although both are equally valid and fascinating creations. She makes the character more beguiling, more openly lustful and confident, while no less deceptively calculating. This Isabella has greater self-assurance than the equivalent Angelo in Act One, who seemed a cold man remote from the world and almost awoken by his passion. Instead, Atwell plays her as a sharp-minded woman seizing on a tasty opportunity that suddenly presents itself, worldly and entitled.

Her scenes with Lowden now are quite different, without the physical height and strength to overcome him, she manoeuvres him into position and waits to pounce. Openly admiring him, Atwell has a way of tilting her head to peer at Angelo (reading as Isabella), emphasising her social if not muscular dominance over him. Instead of the devout virgin of 1604, Lowden gives us a former bad boy who has found redemption at a Christian retreat and Isabella’s pursuit of him tests his resolve – although, it is more awkward than uncomfortable to watch him extricate himself from the proposition scene, perhaps because he seems more acquainted with the world and better able to handle himself than the trapped young woman of the original.

It may seem a chore to watch the same show through twice and you do need a bit of resolve to stick with it, but the outcome is worth the investment. There are two very interesting things happening in this finely honed and balanced production; first one way to read the approach is that the Isabella and Angelo of the second half are the direct consequence of the Isabella and Angelo of the first. Forget the fact they swap lines and imagine what actually happened to the characters at the end of Shakespeare’s original play, who did they become in the future?

Here Rourke asks us to consider, that although Isabella was young, innocent and seemingly incorruptible in terms of her chastity, did having the power of life and death over another man (even for the right reasons) ultimately corrupt her? Did close exposure to that male world of politics and power create a future scenario in which the one-time victim becomes the perpetrator? Atwell certainly hints that the fiery certainty of Isabella in Act One could be the same woman in Act Two only older and more experienced. Her righteousness after the interval seems to suggest the dying embers of an original morality now corrupted by authority.

Likewise, it is entirely conceivable that the dastardly Angelo has spent the intervening years seeking atonement for his sins, arriving at the retreat as a form of therapy to correct his poor behaviour. Like Atwell, Lowden makes this interpretation entirely credible drawing on his portrait of initial sobriety as Act One Angelo to inform and make sense of his Act Two desire to seek religious penance for his earlier behaviour. His reaction to Isabella’s proposition is then deepened by the idea that he now understands the damaging effect of his original behaviour, hence the determination not to succumb. So the question really becomes – are Angelo and Isabella essentially two sides of the same coin, an eternal loop of corruption and reclamation?

Secondly, are we also being asked to question our own judgement about the differences between the two scenarios? Morally they are inexcusably the same, a more powerful individual manipulating a weaker one is unquestionably wrong, but watching it, the production is also testing our own conscience and whether we feel that a gender-swapped twenty-first century Isabella propositioning Angelo is less troubling that the seventeenth-century original. Does society still innately believe that a woman, lacking in physical strength, cannot cajole a man into sex in the same way? Part of that is in the equivalent performances in which Lowden’s cold Angelo is more repellent than Atwell’s slightly coquettish and personable Isabella, but this Measure for Measure asks tough questions – are we really as liberal as we’d like to think? Using power to manipulate another person should be the same regardless of gender but it is intriguing how the alternative perspective of the second half plays with our prejudices on this issue.

Cynically, a double dose of Measure for Measure shouldn’t work, but this re-gendered combination is a gamble that pays off, sending you home with plenty to think about for days afterwards. Peter McKintosh’s simple set, combined with Howard Harrison’s interesting lighting design easily evokes two eras, allowing the power of the lower-lit traditional section to speak for itself uncluttered by scenery, while adding a livelier feel for 2018. The overall concept adds some knowing touches to the modern era with conversations transposed to phone calls and the local prostitutes given an Eastern European background.

Among the supporting cast, Nicholas Burns adds a creepy touch as the helpful undercover Duke with an agenda of his own. His pursuit of Isabella is as disturbing as Angelo’s showing that predators may come disguised as white knights, while Burns becomes more physical in his attempt to seduce Angelo in 2018 which contrasts well with Isabella’s more implicit approach. Matt Bardock is equally notable as the rascally Lucio, while Sule Rimi gives the imprisoned Claudio plenty of injured resentment at his sister / brother’s refusal to help.

As Josie Rourke steps down from the Donmar, this show is one to remember for all the right reasons. In a year of very strong Shakespeare interpretations – Julius Caesar, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra especially – this Measure for Measure has taken the biggest gamble of them all and won. With two terrific performers in Atwell and Lowden each giving two absorbing performances, it is an evening that opens your eyes to how differently Shakespeare’s text can be interpreted and how changing gender can give theatre an added political power.

Measure for Measure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 24 November. Tickets are sold-out but extra seats will available via Klaxon every Monday and day seats at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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