Tag Archives: The Almeida

Against – The Almeida

Ben Whishaw in Against, The Almeida

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.

The Silicon Valley set rarely come off well in popular culture with a combination of technological innovation and immense wealth that seems to separate these CEOs and entrepreneurs from the world they’re intent on changing. From Christopher Walken’s deliciously evil Bond villain planning to drown his competitors to ensure his microchips became invaluable in A View to a Kill to the determined protagonist in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs who rode roughshod over the feelings and loyalties of his colleagues, the tech billionaire is usually presented as someone who wants change at any price.

In reality though, there is another side to these businesses and to the people who run them that can be equally controversial. The charities, foundations and outreach programmes set-up by big multinationals or well-known entrepreneurs can often generate as much negative publicity as helpful support for local communities. And society takes quite a contradictory view on attempts to patronise the arts, fund school buildings or establish charitably foundations – on the one hand, we expect organisations with vast wealth to share it, while condemning donations from unethical sources. In the world of the tech billionaire, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Christopher Shinn’s new play Against explores these issues using one technology entrepreneur who leaves his multiple businesses to begin a nationwide campaign to highlight the different kinds of violence in everyday America. But, rather than pressure from society or the media to share his fortune, Luke’s motivation is more internal, believing he has received a direct order from God to go out into the world and help people. The messianic qualities of the mission become muddied by the mixed reaction he receives and how his logical mind responds to the ever-widening definition of violence he encounters.

It’s clear that Luke (Ben Whishaw) is someone who hops from project to project, although why is never really explored – is it the way his mind works, boredom or a form of short-term thinking that allows him to flutter between activities but never really settle on one thing. We discover early on that he made his money from designing rockets, and has several companies, but his rise to the top of his profession, what he actually does and the effects of this on his decision to transform himself into a social campaigner are not part of this story. Instead, we’re initially asked to take Luke as we find him, although later Shinn tries half-heartedly to give him some unrelated backstory.

The first half focuses on his tour of America, and we see him bounce from issue to issue, and while promising never to leave, soon moving on to the next opportunity. He starts with the recent aftermath of a high school shooting, before moving on to the problem of campus rape and finally the treatment of prisoners, where he incites the various people he meets to follow his cause. This structural approach has much in common with Steve Jobs that used three product launches to examine the changing issues and personality of the entrepreneur and gave the story both a narrative drive and continual tension as you watched him interact with the same set of people over a number of years. But Against takes a more lightweight approach to Luke’s involvement with these communities; he gathers their stories and brings publicity but Shinn isn’t using this deliberately to give us insight into Luke and his purpose, nor really to the acts of violence described.

While Act One is enjoyable to watch with plenty of dramatic possibilities set up in the various encounters Luke has, Act Two seems to squander almost all of them, turning largely away from the causes and consequences of violence – and away from Assassin’s Creed territory –  to Luke’s own personality and the effect of his visit on the ‘disciples’ he leaves behind, people once inspired by his proximity left to fend for themselves. And while that sounds like a sensible direction for the show to take, in practice the effect is muddled and unsatisfactory.

In Act Two, Luke halts his campaign, for reasons that are not entirely clear, and begins to struggle with his feelings for colleague Sheila (Amanda Hale) and a romantic subplot develops between them. He also returns home for a month and looks through old boxes from his school days and even meets up with a former childhood friend, reminiscing about why they lost touch for a while, but doesn’t add anything to our understanding of violence or Luke’s motivation which seemed to be the focus of the first part.

The surrounding cast are also given more spotlight moments in which they move from talking about the violence they encountered to solely discussing Luke, his whereabouts and when he might be returning to their community. These scenes are not sculpted enough to give proper character insight into these various individuals inspired by Luke’s mission, but nor do they properly tell us anything about the way Luke has been perceived and why he inspired people. It frequently mentions detractors but never shows them, so the story seems unevenly loaded towards liking Luke but without proper reasons for doing so.

Against is an odd collection of ideas, philosophies and political standpoints that never really delves beneath the surface of the causes and consequences of violence in society or the characters it follows. It’s not clear what questions Shinn is even asking in its near 3-hour run time and it too often feels that the breadth and complexity of the issues he touches on overwhelmed him, and so, like Luke, Shinn is only creating awareness without teasing out the root causes of the human behaviour that drives people to violence.

Luke has an interesting early conversation with the parents of Tom who shot his schoolfriends and then himself in the cafeteria, as well as hints at the isolation and exclusion that may have driven him to it, but this never fully develops across the show to meaningfully highlight the effects of these acts on his family and friends. Neither does Against build on the other initial theme about what happens to communities when the cameras stop rolling and again, like Luke, Shin becomes distracted by other layers of debate that lead to a meandering and introspective second half that blurs the focus between Luke’s self-discovery and the people he meets.

This production’s saving grace is Ben Whishaw’s magnetic and thoughtful central performance which gives an intensity to the character of Luke that allows the audience to understand why the characters are drawn to him. Happily, this sustains your interest even in the most wayward moments, helping to smooth over the cracks in the work, at least during the period of the play. Whishaw is an actor who could make the back of a cereal packet seem profound, and he uses all his skills here to give life to a character with an almost zealous purpose, but short-attention span for individual causes.

There is an Aspergic quality to Luke, who though highly intelligent, clearly sees the world differently to those around him, where an inability to communicate means he cannot make others see his logic. Again, there are interesting comparisons to be made with Michael Fassbender’s depiction of Steve Jobs, and how the success of tech entrepreneurs can stem from a closure to the emotional world, particularly the sensitivities of others, where logic, science and business-need drive these genius individuals to place machine-like process above human need. And although Whishaw subtly suggests many of these things the text isn’t actually interested in who Luke is and what makes him so special.

In somewhat subverting that, Whishaw commands the stage, introducing a contained physicality into the performance that creates a sense of separateness from the those around him, reinforcing the Jesus-like role he’s cast in (but is also under explored). He uses small gestures such as scrunching his hands or tightening the jaw to convey the mental processes happening beneath the surface as Luke tries to make things fit, and there’s a consistency in the rational-minded man that runs through the play, so he seem as innocence and well-meaning at the end as he was at the start.

The surrounding cast provide solid support in a number of underwritten roles that draw us into the lives of various people Luke meets along the way. As well as Sheila (Amanda Hale), Luke’s long-suffering colleague who facilitates his work while waiting patiently for him to return her feelings, Naomi Wirthner gives a sensitive performance as Tom’s mother deeply affected by her child’s actions but, unlike her husband, open to understanding more about the causes. Kevin Harvey as a former sex-worker turned creative writing Professor gets several scenes in which he coaches Emma D’Arcy’s Anna, herself in a polyamorous relationship that feeds into her writing, but neither of these things develop into properly layered insights into various ways of living, and it’s here that the concepts of violence that Shinn wants to discuss become confused. When attention turns almost entirely to the subplots in the second half, it’s difficult to empathise, despite the performances, because Shinn hasn’t done enough to make us care about them earlier on.

Against is a watchable and pleasant enough experience, but it ends up on too many tangents that never quite add up to a satisfactory experience. It has some valuable points to make about our definition of and response to acts of violence in society, but as the play unfolds it feels like Shinn became so awed by the scale of his creation that the hasty attempt to draw these strands together and find an ending feels wholly unconvincing.

This is a shame for The Almeida after a highly fruitful year that has seen positive acclaim for all of its productions, with Hamlet about to conclude its successful West End transfer and the transfers of Mary Stuart and Ink opening in the next few months. Their run of form had to end sometime and Against probably would have benefitted from another 6-12 months of development to smooth out the many inconsistencies, tie up the loose ends and decide what it really wants to say. Whether this a story about violence, religious idealism, the personalities of tech billionaires or the double-edged sword of charitable donation, Shinn’s play leaves the audience with all the wrong questions at the end. Depsite a very fine performance from Ben Whishaw – which is worth seeing – you leave wondering what was the point of that?

Against is at The Almeida until 30 September and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Ink – The Almeida

Ink, The Almeida

Every now and then a theatre will have a run of particularly good form, as show after show manages to earn critical and popular acclaim. It’s fair to say that The Almeida is currently enjoying a very purple patch, with a series of big successes over the last six months to which they can now add their latest production, James Graham’s new play Ink. The Almeida’s luck began with Mary Stuart in January, and although I didn’t much care for it, it wowed the critics and has just announced a West End transfer, following in the footsteps of its impressive Hamlet starring Andrew Scott that has just opened in the Harold Pinter. Equally excellent was the wonderfully bizarre world created by The Treatment, and with Ben Wishaw starring in Against in August, The Almeida’s mix of classics and new writing, established stars and fresh talent is delivering an astonishing season of work.

With press night for Ink on Tuesday it will be interesting to see if this continues the run of critical approval for the theatre, especially given that its subject – the birth of the current incarnation of The Sun newspaper and its deliberate attempt to shake-up the cronyism of Fleet Street – might ruffle a few critical feathers at the very newspapers it mocks. That aside, it was perfectly clear even at the preview that this is one of the not-to-be-missed shows of the summer, a hilarious, pointed and nuanced examination of the tabloid press and the two men who brought it into being, Larry Lamb and Rupert Murdoch.

It’s 1969 and the young Rupert Murdoch is negotiating a deal to buy the ailing Sun newspaper from The Mirror group, and tries to convince Yorkshire-born editor Larry Lamb to leave his regional paper and return to Fleet Street to oversee The Sun. Given a target of one year to increase the newspapers paltry market share from hundreds of thousands to millions, Lamb sets about reinventing the modern tabloid with give-aways, bold headlines and reader-focused content. As Lamb’s team try to top The Mirror’s circulation numbers, they start to make choices that will compromise their original ideals, upset “the street” and invent a more sullied style of journalism.

James Graham has become quite adept at revealing how various parts of the Establishment fit together and 2017 is proving a good year for him too. A revival of his 2012 play This House was warmly received in the West End and another new play, Labour of Love starring Martin Freeman and Sarah Lancashire, opens at the Noel Coward in September. Best described as a comedy drama, Ink is a joy from start to finish and considerably more balanced than you’d imagine a play about the origins of a tabloid newspaper to be.

What is clear from his style of writing, is that Graham wants you to understand the human motivations behind our modern impression of The Sun and its founders, how it became the behemoth it is today by taking us back to its origins. In the creation of character, Graham deliberately avoids cartoonish ridicule, but offers a chance to reflect on the original ideals of Murdoch and Lamb, using their outsider status to create innovative disruption in the industry, and believing that they were delivering an individual-focused people-led newspaper that spoke to the working nation in a way that broadsheets couldn’t. What is so fascinating about Ink is the idea of the Frankenstein’s monster they all created by playing to these notions which then began to take on a life and momentum which they could no longer control, warnings about which are echoed repeatedly – and it is this, along with the race for circulation, this is the backbone of the play.

Richard Coyle leads an excellent cast as the change-maker Larry Lamb, who seems to trade attitudes with his new boss Murdoch, played with relish by Bertie Carvel, as the play unfolds. What begins as an us-against-the-world partnership as the northerner and the Australian try to break the clubbable stranglehold of the elite on mainstream British journalism, becomes a more fractious relationship as Lamb takes outrageous risks that Murdoch squirms away from. And in the central section of the play, Murdoch is seen less and less as he steps back from direct engagement with the paper to develop his much wider media empire, leaving Lamb to call the shots and take the fall if it all goes wrong.

Coyle is such an accomplished actor and not often enough seen on stage or screen, but here is the driving force of the play. What we know about Lamb in retrospect and the cost of his interventions will send you to this play with considerable pre-conceptions, which Coyle skilfully subverts. Instead we are introduced initially to a good man, solid, reliable and with a talent for bringing his staff together harmoniously, but even in his first scene we see the seeds are sown as he outlines the 5 whys of good storytelling – who, what, when, where and what next, having abandoned why because it doesn’t matter. He also has a slight chip on his shoulder about lack of promotion when he worked for The Mirror but he ploughs his frustrations into making The Sun a reader-focused newspaper full of the things Brits love with very little hope of turning the papers fortunes around.

But as the story develops, initial success goes to his head and Coyle demonstrates how Lamb became increasingly reckless, discarding decency and taste to reach his one-year target to outsell all their rivals, even using the personal tragedies of his own staff. Murdoch has to push Lamb to become a businessman, taking tough decisions at the expense of friendly relations with his team, but when he does there’s no one to hold him back. And in the final moments of the play when Lamb sees the consequences, Coyle brilliantly conveys a sense of hopeless regret and anxiety about the future he has been instrumental in creating.

Bertie Carvel has to bear the weight of even more expectation as the young Murdoch, espousing Thatcherite ideals of individualism and big business a decade before she became Prime Minister. Carvel captures the soft accent and slightly hunched physical demeanour extremely well and works hard to keep Murdoch on the right side of caricature. It’s clear he resents his outsider status, looked down upon for his background and connections by the owners of Fleet Street’s finest, but he clings to a new business-focus that chimes with the changing attitudes of the late 1960s, despite his instance in dining at the exclusive Establishment restaurant Rules. Perhaps most intriguing is how clearly Murdoch distances himself from some of Lamb’s innovations, and Carvel plays this as part hesitancy, part washing his hands of it, so by the end of the play you see clearly the man he would become.

Surrounding the leads are a fantastic team of reporters and production staff including excellent turns from Sophie Stanton as the chippy Joyce Hopkirk a no-nonsense seen-it-all Women’s Editor in a world of men, Tim Steed as Bernard Shrimsley the paper’s only well-spoken posh Brit with a love of fonts (who in real life became Lamb’s successor), and Justin Salinger as crime reporter turned unofficial floor manager Brian McConnell who becomes Lamb’s right-hand man. There are great smaller roles for Pearl Chanda as young model who becomes the first Page 3 star, David Schofield as Lamb’s former mentor Hugh Cudlipp and, channelling the sartorial style of Robin Askwith in Bless This House, Jack Holden as long-haired young photographer Beverley.

Bunny Christie’s towering design feels like a rat trap with desks piled on top of one another, clutter and paper everywhere and various exits and pathways. It has the look of a busy newsrooms but also the poorly conditioned basement implied in the text. The set does have several levels and if you’re at the back of the stalls you won’t be able to see more than the legs of the actors at the top due to the overhang of the circle, but the majority of the action takes place on the main stage level.

Director Rupert Goold keeps the action moving swiftly and scenes merge effortlessly using the various levels and sets raised into place from the floor. Goold also keeps the balance between comedy and a much darker second act, alongside moments of pure whimsy as short song and dance routines act as a montage for Lamb collecting his team, and later the unbelievable success of The Sun’s early months, all beautifully lit by Neil Austin. Ink is one of those rare plays that you watch with a smile on your face throughout, not just because it’s funny, but because the writing is so engaging and the performances so accomplished that you’re gripped by what it has to say. The Almeida really is enjoying the purpliest of purple patches and Ink really deserves to be headline news.

Ink is at The Almeida until 5 August and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Treatment – The Almeida

The Treatment, The Almeida

Life is almost always the basis for art, be it theatre, film or painting, but the finished product often bears little resemblance to the original deed. What happens between the act and the representation of it is a transformation in which reality becomes heightened, frozen and removed from its wider context to give an audience a snapshot of events, a moment in time. The Almeida’s superb revival of The Treatment examines the process of transforming one woman’s story into art – or as one character sees it a “corruption” of truth.

As the play opens, Annie is telling her story to two film ‘facilitators’ Jennifer and Andrew who listen intently, apparently sympathising but occasionally interrupting with their expectations of how the story unfolds – expectations based on their movie-led ideas of drama and plot. Sweet, innocent Anne soon learns that her narrative is no longer her own as she is bombarded with improvements and the unsought attentions of Andrew who claims to have fallen for her instantly. Running in parallel the producers also meet playwright Clifford still trading on a late 60s fame that has long since faded. The story he proposes to them becomes mixed in with Anne’s truth, and as the boundary of art and life begins to fray, both storytellers encounter the bizarre world of the producers, the New York streets and the arrival of Anne’s husband.

First produced at the Royal Court in the 1990s, this assured and fascinating revival feels as relevant now as it must have done 25 years ago as the individual need to be heard has been given fresh life via social media while the unstoppable advance of reality TV imposes a glossy narrative order on the chaotic events of daily life. What is most interesting is the way in which the design creates an unnerving world in which the drab grey-panelled offices of the producers where fantasies are created feels more like real-life than the colour saturated and bizarre external locations around New York. And as Anne becomes more embroiled that distinction is increasingly important, so by the second act, designer Giles Cadle and lighting director Neil Austin have created an increasingly false and unreal visual aesthetic, like a Miles Aldridge photo come to life.

And the tone is equally unsettling; it starts out as a comedy with Indira Varma’s hardnosed producer constantly interrupting Anne’s rather simple story of being held captive, by taking the tale off on elaborate tangents that will make it more sell-able to the film’s audience. We suppress a wry smile and roll our eyes as Jennifer tries to preempt Anne only to be rebuffed by a less glamorous truth, but it says much about us that while we recognise that what we see on screen is a heightened version of reality, Jennifer symbolises our own innate expectation that stories will play-out in a certain way. If a man holds a woman captive and tapes her mouth, it must be for a sexual purpose, and Anne’s insistence to the contrary shows us just how clearly our perceptions of truth have been blurred by film and TV representations of similar incidents, and how frighteningly easy it is to start thinking about these things as clichés.

This seems to be at the crux of Crimp’s play and something that is demonstrated with skillful clarity by The Almeida’s production. If we think of the influence of these fictions on real-life as the blind leading the blind, then the bizarrely wonderful scene in which a sightless taxi driver takes Anne on a journey round New York makes perfect contextual sense. It’s utterly surreal but also a metaphor for what’s happening in the rest of the play where what you think you see and what you really see are not necessarily the same thing.

So, when Anne’s husband Simon (Matthew Needham) comes to find her in the city and encounters writer Clifford (Ian Gelder), it leads him to disparage the arts as the corruption of life, to the point where he doesn’t want to sit in a dark room for two hours and be lied to.  And it’s interesting that this searing analysis comes from the most ordinary person in the play, a man with no link to the glossy world that calls to Anne, but someone able to cut through the pretence with a reasoned and damning condemnation of both the characters and all of us in the audience watching a made-up show about a fantasy world. It’s a light and strange play but one that under the surface has so many things to say about the way we distort reality and use the arts to tell stories.

The performances are uniformly excellent led by Aisling Loftus as Anne, a mouse of woman who despite a girlish reticence that seems her default personality, has a surprising determination to tell her story exactly as it happens, demanding truth in a world of fabrication. Both over-awed by the producers and refusing to be railroaded by them, Anne firmly corrects every attempt to deviate from her tale with a nervous certainty – Loftus showing us that Anne is a raft of contradictions, seduced and repelled by the Hollywood world she is trying to escape to. Her continual confusion is at its best in the growing connection with Andrew as the two a drawn together, but her reserve tethers her to the familiarity of her old life as she faces a choice between true past and fantasy future. Loftus, playing it perfectly straight, gets exactly the right wide-eyed feel that offers many comic and enjoyably bizarre moments.

Equally beguiled by the clash of fantasy and reality is Andrew who falls for Anne’s simple nature and his encounter with her, while initially a trick to win her story, seems to wake him up to the falsity of the life he’s been living. It’s always a treat to see Julian Ovenden on stage and his Andrew is barely readable at the beginning, leaning casually against the wall as Jennifer holds forth, watching and absorbing what’s happening without actively participating. And Ovenden feeds that ambiguity through the performance, never quite sure if Andrew is genuinely taken with Anne or using his allure to make the deal, which adds a touch of danger to proceedings. But whatever his real motive, he is troubled by her presence, and, in a life dominated by other people’s made-up stories, it’s as if he’s been living in a bubble that suddenly bursts, showing him the world as it really is for the first time in years, a confusion which Ovenden navigates superbly.

Equally skilful is Indira Varma’s semi-monstrous Jennifer, who treats her own staff like dirt while stroking the egos of possible clients. Jennifer feels entirely in control of everyone around her, she has a seemingly unassailable power in her office, while knowing how to cajole and manipulate storytellers to deliver the kind of film she knows will sell. There’s very little empathy in her, a brutal business woman thinking about profits and bagging the next big thing, prepared to publicly abuse her staff, but Varma also makes her unexpectedly funny, emphasising Jennifer’s ridiculousness, so lost in the creation of fiction that she has no self-awareness.

There’s also excellent support from several supporting cast members, not least Ian Gelder’s fabulously self-absorbed odd-ball writer who clings to his former grandeur while trying to conceal his desperation, that ends up costing him more than his reputation, and Matthew Needham’s deeply sinister interpretation of Anne’s husband Simon who finds the big city unnerving but thinks it’s perfectly normal to tie his wife to a chair while he’s at work.

It’s all directed with style by Lyndsey Turner, and while there are long scene changes as the audience is shown an increasingly distorted cab ride around New York, it adds to the deliberately disjointed and uncomfortable feel the production strives for. One of the most interesting aspects is the use of layered conversations and at various points two or more separate discussion happen simultaneously, forcing the audience to decide which one they want to tune into. Partly it adds to the confusion but also more accurately reflects the way real speech happens than most stage dialogue.

This revival of the The Treatment is a wonderfully bizarre piece of theatre that has lots to say about the blurring of boundaries between fiction and reality, and the creation of art. In these days of reality TV and fake news it may be increasingly difficult to distinguish between truth and invention but Martin Crimp’s play remains a relevant and enjoyably odd show that reminds us that what we see on screen has been plucked, pulled and ‘treated’ until it barely resembles its original state. Perhaps Simon is right; life itself is fine, it is art that’s corrupt.

The Treatment is at The Almeida until 10 June and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Hamlet – The Almeida

 

hamlet-the-almeida-by-miles-aldridgeAt just shy of four hours, it’s fair to say the Almeida’s new version of Hamlet, which has its press night tomorrow, is by far the longest I’ve ever seen, and while it doesn’t always feel as long as it is, anyone lucky enough to have tickets to this already sold out run should brace themselves for a marathon. And while the overall production is pretty good, has a quite excellent central performance and is bubbling with ideas, it also has a few inconsistencies and frustrations that the extended length draws attention to. But of course four hours is an awfully long time to be doing anything; you could watch two movies, take the Eurostar from London to Paris and start to sightsee, read a 200 page book or watch an omnibus edition of Four in a Bed and still have 90 minutes to spare.

But Hamlet is a character that you want to spend time with, an endlessly fascinating creation who holds a ‘mirror up to nature’ and gets to the very heart of life, death, grief and madness, who for centuries has attracted actors desperate for their turn to play the role. There is no wrong way to perform it because it is always a very personal reading, and 18 months ago, when reviewing Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican, I talked about there being as many interpretations of Hamlet as there are actors to play him and audiences to watch. What you see in Hamlet will depend on you and eventually there will be an actor who plays him exactly as you imagine he should be.

In recent times most of the versions we’ve seen have largely been straightforward hero-Hamlets, distraught with grief and feigning madness to seek a just revenge, while the actors who’ve played him, despite nuances they bring to the character are those we largely associated with good-guy roles – Tennant, Cumberbatch, Whishaw – all actors the public see a certain way, playing characters who are at heart decent people. So it feels right that Andrew Scott’s new version at The Almeida shifts the balance, giving us a Hamlet that is full of rage and bitterness, whose true madness is entirely possible.

Director Robert Icke has set his version in a sleek office or waiting room,  a purgatorial no man’s land, with sliding glass doors that lead to a rear section of the stage where occasional images are played at the back of the action – Gertrude and Claudius dancing happily at their wedding, Hamlet visiting Ophelia in her closet – which brings out the play’s sense of layers, while the glass doors offer distorted reflections of the characters, the mirroring that Hamlet refers to early on. Although seemingly a modern-day piece, Hildegard Bechtler’s set has a 70s minimalist quality that feels like a muted David Hockney painting from his California series with sharp interior and reflective surfaces.

On top of that Icke has added a big screen that displays Danish newsfeeds of this royal family and the approach of Fortinbras’s army (meaning he never appears on stage) as well as images from the various CCTV cameras that first capture the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Reactions to the Gonzago play and the fencing contest are also shown using video projection. All of this should imply people under constant scrutiny living very public lives, and deals with the difficulty of presenting the larger scale sections in the tiny Almeida space.

But, like last year’s Richard III, the technology is not consistently applied and while spying is a significant part of the play (Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet, while Hamlet spies on Claudius) the CCTV isn’t used to create much sense of claustrophobia, while the filming idea feels more about staging issues than integral to the world Icke has created, one that has live streaming of events but people still receive notes on paper and no one appears to have a phone or computer. Its setting, then, is a half-way house between old and new in terms of look, as well as recombining elements from earlier iterations of Hamlet – notably Greg Doran’s 2008 version for the RSC that used mirrored sets, CCTV and filming Claudius to similar effect although here the technology is a decade on.

The technology isn’t much of a distraction and for the most part the audience can concentrate entirely on the performances, when even Tom Gibbons’s semi-permanent soundscape of music and thudding beats thankfully stops to hear the big soliloquies in perfect silence. Scott’s Hamlet connects to a grief and passionate anger that for much of the play barely contains his affecting sobs of despair. The court around him is light and happy, so rather than a pure hero, Scott’s Hamlet becomes the dark and destructive presence that threatens the contentment of those around him. There are moments of wit (and people titter every time they recognise a line) but this is more than a melancholy young man, this is a serious and furiously frenzied Hamlet shouting at the world.

Scott captivates the audience, bringing an energy and ferocity to the production that means the question of Hamlet’s madness remains ambiguous. He clearly gives the role everything he has in a mammoth performance, and when he delivers all the big soliloquies, choosing to engage directly with the audience rather than as dialogues within his own mind, you could hear a pin drop so expertly has he drawn the viewer into the debates, building each speech from frustrated philosophising to rating rages against Claudius, the court and his own ‘blunted purpose’. This Hamlet, wired and on the edge, changes on his return from England but rather than the beatific man we often see, Scott’s Hamlet is resigned to his fate, knowing what will come and letting it play out, as if he has lost whatever fight he had and finally decided ‘not to be’.

The rest of the cast is more mixed however but bring a welcome freshness to Polonius and his children which add to the tragedy of the final moments. So often, productions focus on the royal family with Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia just grist to the mill, unfortunate side-effects in Hamlet’s just quest for vengeance. But here we see them as central to  Hamlet’s own growing madness, a loving and warm family, close and affectionate, unlike his own, that he ultimately destroys – something the audience is asked to linger on in the otherwise dreadful misfire of a ‘heaven-wedding’ ending.

Polonius is usually quite annoying, prattling on only for Hamlet to outwit him. Instead, Peter Wright makes him a loving father, run ragged and highly sympathetic as he delivers news to his royal masters. While the part feels reduced, Wright conveys the notion of a decent and hard-working man looking out for his family which adds genuine sadness to his end. Similarly Ophelia is less fey than usual and the production takes time to create some chemistry with Hamlet while Jessica Brown Findlay delivers the verse quite naturally, although sometimes a little too fast. A minor frustration is her appearance topless in a bath at the back of the stage in a non-verbal scene and is yet another instance of actresses being asked to do something that adds nothing whatsoever to the plot in a production that contains no other nudity. Her madness scenes are less convincing but that is more to do with the way they are presented than her performance, and she too offers a sense of raging grief that reflects Scott’s approach.

Laertes is a small but important role that is often seen as the antithesis of Hamlet’s character. Laertes has greater cause for upset than his former friend, having lost two members of his family, and unlike Hamlet, chooses to act instantly and violently. But with so many hero-Hamlets of late, Laertes is often forgotten, but Luke Thompson brings a nuance to the role which adds an interesting contrast with Scott’s darker Hamlet. While Laertes is comfortably happy and well-loved at the start, Thompson’s return toward the end of the play is a fiery rage of grief and anger – again mirroring Scott’s approach – that makes perfect sense in light of Claudius’s plan. But what is so interesting in this performance is the growing reluctance to see it through, so Thompson’s hands shake, he holds back in the fencing and you see his fear growing as his better nature takes over. It is a very fine performance (the latest in a growing portfolio for the actor) and the mastery of indecision here may set him up well to give his own Hamlet one day.

Less successful however are Claudius and Gertrude, with Angus Wright’s Claudius being virtually without menace. We see them first very much in love at their wedding and for a while we could believe that Hamlet is wrong about his uncle. Maybe Wright is saving his darkness for press night but he hasn’t found the lust for power and the attraction of Claudius yet. He is perhaps miscast, whereas the superb David Rintoul who plays the Ghost and Player King (a neat comment on the potential illusion of Hamlet’s father) could be a considerably more charismatic Claudius. The production also makes the strange decision to have Claudius perform his confessional speech directly to the gun-toting Hamlet rather than have it overheard. But, confessing to Hamlet’s face makes little sense when Hamlet does nothing about it, psychologically he gets the same information and behaves the same way by overhearing it, while being told directly and not shooting him then and there doesn’t quite fit.

Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude has a little more opacity and we’re never quite sure if she is complicit in the death of her first husband, and indeed whether she loves Hamlet at all. Stevenson hints at both these things, particularly in the opening scene as she shows considerable affection to Laertes but doesn’t touch her son. Yet, these two ideas could run more consistently through the performance if Stevenson wants to add a new interpretation to the Gertrude as Lady Macbeth approach.

There are plenty of unanswered questions in The Almeida’s new Hamlet with lots of visual concepts on show that don’t always tie into the production. Ophelia sports some very bad peroxide hair while Laertes has a visible tattoo on his neck which is never referenced, whether these belong to the actors, are for other roles or are meant to suggest the Polonius family are a bit chavvy is unclear, as is the elongated wedding day timeline at the beginning which upsets the point at which Hamlet’s madness is supposed to begin, or the handover of watches at the end showing that time has run out, which needed to be meaningfully referenced throughout to have any significance here.

Despite its length, this is an engaging and highly watchable production that uses its variable pace to just about keep everyone on-board and fully engaged to the end. Part One is 1 hour and 45 minutes which meanders most, but Part Two at 35 minutes and Part Three at 55 minutes ramp up the drama and pressure very well. Overall the approach is an interesting one, and while like Cumberbatch’s version, the production doesn’t always fully align with its star, there are plenty of fresh ideas and excellent performances that make this highly enjoyable. There are lots of things you could do with four hours, but watching Andrew Scott’s powerful and raging Hamlet is certainly one of them, just prepare for a marathon – ‘the readiness is all’.

Hamlet is at The Almeida until 15 April. The production is largely sold out but day tickets and returns are available from £10. The Almeida also has a series of events, talks and activities in their Hamlet for Free Festival from 10-13 April.

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Richard III – The Almeida

Ralph Fiennes as Richard III by Miles Aldridge

Richard III may well be the most frequently performed Shakespeare play of the last few years, seemingly spawning more productions than Hamlet. Given a new lease of life after the discovery of his body in a Leicester car park in 2012, we’ve seen the lead role played by Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic, Martin Freeman in a Jaime Lloyd version, a wonderful promenade production by Iris Theatre Company in St Paul’s church yard and Mark Rylance at the Globe. The Faction opened 2016 with its innovative version at The New Diorama starring Christopher York and a few weeks ago the BBC screened its version with Benedict Cumberbatch. Now at the Almeida, Ralph Fiennes assumes the role of Shakespeare’s most controversial villain.

Fiennes is having an incredible run of form on stage; he’s taken on three mammoth roles in major productions with a combined stage time of well over 11 hours. Starting with Man and Superman last year at the National, The Master Builder at the Old Vic in February – both shamefully overlooked by the award panels – and now Richard III for the Almeida; it’s an impressive commitment to theatre that in little more than a year has been incredible to watch. This performance feels like the end of a trilogy of works that have examined the ambiguous nature of power and its ability to release the inner strands of villainy and self-absorption disguised by a charming manner and degree of the subject’s star power. While Man and Superman’s John Tanner was the least dangerous, his vanity led naturally into Fiennes next role as Ibsen’s Halvard Solness the eponymous master builder who sacrifices everything for fame, and ultimately then to the dark and dangerous charisma of Richard III who covets greater status and will do anything to get it.

The Almeida’s production opens with the archaeological dig in that Leicester car park with forensic officers searching for remains in an open grave where they find the skull and curved spine of Richard. It’s a poignant opening that references both the ongoing contemporary interest in Richard’s story, and Shakespeare’s own version of it, as well as the burden of mortality which hangs heavy over this interpretation. Though mostly covered in a retractable glass platform, the grave is visible throughout reminding the audience that Richard will cause many deaths on his path to the throne – and reversing the soldier-ornaments concept from And Then There Were None, skulls appear on the back wall with each fatality – but also that for all his machinations this too will be Richard’s own fate. In an interesting directorial decision, at key moments the glass is retracted and characters move around the open grave and occasionally die into it implying perhaps that these decisions seal Richard’s own fate.

It’s a contemporary design using a palette of sombre black to reflect the constant mourning of the court, with touches of monarchical gold. Jon Morrell’s costumes and Hildegard Bechtler’s set offer a modern yet timeless element to the story, combining a minimalist simplicity with hints of cold stone palaces and Midlands battlefields. A swinging chain mail curtain separates the throne from the grave, a potent symbol of the role of war in the creation and destruction of medieval monarchy which reflects the play’s own concern with the grieving royal widows whose fortunes were decided in combat. More perhaps could be made of the military influence on this society in other areas of the design to really emphasise the years of brutality, suspicion and devastation that have afflicted Yorkist England.

Fiennes’s Richard III is a monstrous combination of magnetism and psychopathy that wins the audience’s interest early on. He begins by letting us in on his plans and as he wheedles his way towards the crown, his methods become increasingly dangerous and sadistic. But charm comes first and as we see in only the second scene language is his initial tool to convince the Lady Anne to marry him and then winning the various council members to his will. Later still we see his physical strength that despite his deformity, is sufficient to overpower and subdue Anne and Queen Elizabeth as well as prove a worthy opponent in battle.

The curved spine held up by the archaeologists at the start is mirrored in the prosthetic Fiennes wears which makes the ridges of the backbone occasionally visible through his costume. His right arm is clamped to his side, the left shoulder built up and one foot slightly turned in, but this is no panto representation and Fiennes absorbs Richard’s deformity into a fuller perspective of the character – Richard rarely draws attention to his differences and Fiennes subtly uses that to imply the powerful way in which Richard sees himself, as the same or better than other men. The intensity of performance is a joy to watch and each of his soliloquies are magnificent; he has a great feel for the verse and a stage presence that creates a very different energy and vitality when he’s there. Fiennes in full flight is really something to see, and as his Richard explodes with anger and recrimination, as well the more sensitive and troubled moments of conscience, it’s thrilling to immerse yourself in such a high calibre performance.

A number of other actors also stand out, particularly Finbar Lynch as Richard’s co-conspirator the Duke of Buckingham who helps to work the council and arranges a few deaths that propel Richard to the throne before bulking at the murder of the Princes. Scott Handy has a sensitive and moving role as the innocent Duke of Clarence, Richard’s brother and first victim that provides a stark contrast with our protagonist, while Aislin McGuckin is a fiery Queen Elizabeth who charts the descent from ultimate power to destruction really well. Her lengthy scene in the second part of the play with Fiennes in which he persuades her to let him marry her daughter is one of the best in the production, full of tension and bitterness that builds to what will be a controversial climax, although one which brings fresh perspective to this scene and will be a talking point on the way home.

With five shows under its belt, the Almeida’s production is still in preview so a lot can still change, and with three further performances before Thursday’s press night there are a few things the show could do to make even more of an impact. Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays have a huge cast of characters to keep straight so it’s easy for an audience to be confused by the various Dukes and members of the clergy, and too often in the group scenes a lot of characters are dotted around the stage and seemingly not reacting to the speaker. You can see that Fiennes’s Richard is constantly thinking, whatever is being said the wheels are turning in his mind and his blood is boiling, and some of the other characters need to give more thought to how they feel about what’s being said and what it means for them. This would help to differentiate some of the secondary roles and give greater nuance to the shifting factions of the court.

Not much has been cut and with a first half coming in at 1 hour, 45 minutes, the show feels a little sluggish at first and there are a number of scenes in which various men sit around a table politicking so perhaps there’s scope to inject some dynamism in the staging. More thought too could be given to the role of the women to whom Shakespeare has given considerable focus but are not yet being used to make a forceful point either about the consequences of warfare in this period or as the only people able to see through Richard’s veneer of politeness. It’s a rare treat to see Vanessa Redgrave on stage (as Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI) and she delivers her lines beautifully but it’s not yet clear where the character is pitched – is she mad or do the others only think so? Likewise Joanna Vanderham’s Lady Anne has a single shouty pitch which isn’t capturing the pawn-like nature of the character or the lot of marryable highborn women to be treated like possessions. Phoebe Fox in the recent BBC version was a moving Lady Anne, while Kristin Scott Thomas in the McKellen film played her as a deadeyed drug addict detached from it all, so Vanderham needs to find an angle. Scott Thomas was actually in the audience and would be a good shout for the yet unannounced role as Cleopatra opposite Fiennes in the National’s forthcoming Anthony and Cleopatra.

Finally there are a couple of themes that are hinted at but never fully realised. Lord Hastings (an excellent James Garnon) is the only person with a mobile phone which he uses to impart news, but this device isn’t utilised (and could be) in other places. If the director, Rupert Goold, is making the point that only Hastings is engaged in this way then we need the other characters to respond to that, or having other people bored and texting may add to the big scenes which currently lack reaction. And while I like the car park opener there’s only a hinted return to that at the very end which feels a little incomplete as a comment on modern engagement, maybe we need to see the bones again or have some kind of re-interment to close the story.

Regardless of these small changes, this production of Richard III is fascinating, powerful and compelling. With a reawakened interest in this period of history, audiences are coming to this play with greater knowledge of the story and looking for an intelligent approach to one of Shakespeare’s darkest works. Fiennes is the life-blood of this production, creating a loathsome, terrifying and engaging villain who easily outmanoeuvres those around him and keeps the audience on the edge of their seat throughout. As an exploration in human morality Fiennes’s recent roles have taken us from a bachelor afraid of marriage to an emotionally damaged man avenging himself on the world, reminding us what a truly powerful performer he is.

Richard III is at The Almeida Theatre until 6 August. The show has some seats available from £10 but day seats are available from 11am at the box office or via lottery. There will also be the first live screening from The Almeida to cinemas on 21 July.  


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