Tag Archives: The Old Vic

Endgame and Rough for Theatre II – The Old Vic

Endgame - Old Vic

It is a great time for Samuel Beckett fans, a highly acclaimed triple bill is running at the Jermyn Street Theatre and this week the Old Vic adds a double bill of Endgame and Rough for Theatre II which opens to the press tomorrow, welcoming Daniel Radcliffe back to the theatre where his starring role in Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet homage three years ago was warmly received. Joining him after more than a decade away from the West End is Alan Cumming lured back to London by these less-frequently performed Beckett works and Matthew Warchus’s theatre which is enjoying an exceptional run of form.

For some time now, the Old Vic has programmed a series of unmissable hits while attracting some of the biggest stars of stage and screen. The superb All My Sons last April was the highlight of a much wider presentation of Arthur Miller’s work and starred West End debutantes Bill Pullman, Sally Field and Jenna Coleman alongside theatre devotee Colin Morgan. Noel Coward was given a spritz of modern spice and morality with an outstanding version of Present Laughter with an exemplary Andrew Scott at the helm which was then replaced by stars of The Crown, Claire Foy and Matt Smith who have earned a Broadway transfer for parental drama Lungs. And with Timothee Chalamet appearing with Eileen Atkins in their next play 4000 Miles, the Old Vic is almost unrivaled in its shrewd combination of modern twentieth and twenty-first century classics with all-star casts.

Rough for Theatre II

Beckett, then, should be in safe hands and the evening begins with Rough For Theatre II, a slight drama in length if not in meaning. At only 25-minutes this is a little performed if engrossing piece as two bureaucrats debate the life and worth of a suicide case to determine whether or not the man should jump. Like Pinter, Beckett’s choices are very specific, using vocabulary, sentence structure, movement and stage directions to create a precise and controlled effect, choosing at what point the actors move or react to the slowly changing perspective within the story.

Here in Rough for Theatre II, designer Stewart Laing sets the entire piece on a small apron appended to the front of the stage in front of the main curtain where two small square desks and chairs face each other on opposite ends of the room. Each symmetrical desk has a lamp which becomes integral to the plot while the centre is dominated by a figure standing on the precipice of an open window – the entire effect has a soulless American classic theme, a place of formality and governance, but also of emptiness and hopelessness.

Laing simultaneously creates space and confinement around the three figures, suggesting the official distance of executive authority that allows the two men to speak with distracted formality, almost dismissal while arguing for the man’s death, yet the narrowed playing space, the long thin strip of stage at the same time moves the characters into each other’s space to clearly uncomfortable effect. It is briskly managed and Richard Jones as director emphasises the emotional interior of the antagonists while exploring the shifting relationship between them as it considers their pride in their work, attention to minutiae, individual fears and growing frustrations.

Character A who is sometimes known as Bertrand, played here by Radcliffe, is entirely at ease with himself and his role in determining Character C / Croker’s fate, while cross-questioning and redirecting his colleague with a quiet authority. Playing the straighter role here, the characterisation could appear fairly one-sided but Radcliffe hints at Bertrand’s discomfort at Morven’s physical proximity when circumstance force them together, but intriguingly feels no similar concern as he daringly hangs from the window-frame to observe Croker.

By contrast Cumming’s Character B / Morven is more highly strung, nervy and easily distracted from his purpose by faulty wiring, the unduly elaborate grammar of witness statements and a notional attraction to Bertrand. Sporting a slightly exaggerated version of his natural Scotch, Cumming squirms and rages, the opposite of Radcliffe’s placidity which ties the two characters inexorably together as they explore the ‘organic waste’ of life. It’s short but filled with meaningful phraseology that references death, how easily life is reduced to accumulated paragraphs of evidence and the implacable nature of fate.

Endgame

After an interval, Laing’s new set for Endgame marries domesticity with post-apocalyptic doom in a grey walled structure very similar to Soutra Gilmour’s boxy set for Betrayal. The characters are enclosed or, more appropriately, entombed in the room of an empty but still recognisable home with small curtained windows raised high in the wall that gives a basement or prison-feel to the piece while offering plenty of comic potential when these portals to the equally gloomy but unseen exterior are accessed. The room is completed with a central armchair and two steel-grey wheelie bins carved into the stage-front.

Endgame is a strange and difficult absurdist play which runs at approximately 85-minutes as a master and servant play-out what seem to be a repetitive routine while believing their story is soon to end for the last time. There is no plot as such, nor really chapters to mark different stages of the play, so instead Beckett creates a flow of interactions that mix tales of past and present told from the perspective of different characters, while examining the isolation and loneliness that seeks forms of companionship and storytelling as the last refuge of the human condition. What you feel so strongly in this play is how repeated requests for silence and peace are always overcome by the need to interact, to be heard even in the crotchety exchanges between men who have lived together too long.

In this second piece, Jones changes the tone entirely and instantly a pin-drop silence falls over the auditorium as the strangeness of the scenario is felt before it is understood. And across the play there is a cyclical action as the characters explore the connectedness of life and death, with the one naturally leading back to the other. This means that although the chair-bound Hamm and his servant Clov repeatedly express a desire to terminate their mutually-dependent association, they are forever unable to really do so.

A sense of repetition dogs the play from the start as Clov mechanically moves between the windows attempting to draw the curtains while forgetting the stepladder or failing to remember he has performed the task before – an amusing opening that eases the audience into the slightly strange existence of these men. But there is also a feeling of routine, of how frequently the characters have performed the same action or had the same conversation, as if by rote each day. This happens at several points through the stories they tell one another in which endings seem impossible such as the tailor unable to complete a pair of trousers and as Clov wheels his master around the room, bringing scraps of food and amusement.

Time, therefore, punctuates their interaction with Hamm frequently asking whether his ‘pain pills’ are due, knowing when the next chapter of his story is ready to be unveiled and in a more pointed reference to the passing minutes an alarm clock is introduction to signify the end of their time together. Beckett’s love of ambiguity never allows the audience to know whether this is just another day enacting the same unchanging routine or whether their pattern and interaction has degraded over time and is indeed in its final phase. There are multiple suggestions that humanity itself is at an end, with only ‘gloom’ and no living creatures, no sign of nature or climate beyond the walls where impossibility of species regeneration is clear. Jones suggests they could be the last humans alive merely passing the time until the end releases them all for good.

As Hamm, Cumming offers a quite fascinating performance, a character playing a one-sided game of chess in which he will be both the ultimate winner and its loser as he undergoes various changes in mood across the period of the play. Hamm can be many things all at once, charming and likeable, a suggestion of a interesting active life lived long ago, but also demanding, spoiled and entitled, determined to assert his knowing authority over his servant while never wanting to appear at any disadvantage from his inability to walk or see. Cumming plays him almost as a stream of consciousness, a rambling association of stories, demands and thoughts that fluidly shift and expand as he becomes more talkative.

There is also a more existential strand to Hamm, musing on the nature of his life and its meaning that draws out an unexpected softness. There is a subtle fathers and sons theme with Hamm needing the interaction with his father – Nagg (an excellent and meaningful Karl Johnson) – who lives in one of the bins and is enticed out to engage with his son, or more accurately to listen to his speechifying in return for edible rewards. Theirs is a difficult relationship, one which the elder evidently regrets but neither can relinquish. This is given a greater depth when Hamm indicates that Clov is almost a son to him, someone for whom he feels responsibility and even care for a fleeting moment as Cumming introduces plenty of light and shade, finding a softer, needier dimension to Hamm who recognises the necessity of others to his own stability, even if he cannot wholly reconcile or admit those feelings to himself or them.

It is impossible to be anything but impressed by the theatre and film choices that Daniel Radcliffe has made in recent years, and it’s always abundantly clear on stage how hard he works in preparing and exploring his characters. He was excellent – and very funny – as Rosencrantz in 2017, while his Clov here in Endgame is a much more physically demanding role that requires a crooked shape and inability to bend at the knees that affects his walk and posture throughout the play. There is something of the obsequious horror-film butler about Clov, an oddity whose relentless plod and awkward way with a stepladder allows Radcliffe to indulge in some broader comic tics that make his character both strange and sympathetic.

It is also a smart performance, and one that draws out Clov’s growing irritation at Hamm’s demands. The intellectual battles between master and servant are reasonably one-sided and Radcliffe finds all the resentful duty that his character feels in being unable to resist any demands. Yet this Clov also knows there is power in his presence and the threat of removing himself from Hamm is his only means of control, one that grows as Radcliffe’s Clov becomes increasingly frustrated with his own behaviour as the play unfolds. The authoritarian dynamic between them is quite different from Rough for Theatre II, but Radcliffe successfully navigates both in another interesting stage appearance.

Like many Theatre of the Absurd pieces (see also the recent Exit the King), these are not easy plays to navigate and Endgame in particular is a challenging watch. Beckett’s work is largely thematic and not something that prioritises narrative or character development which can be tricky if you’re looking for something with a beginning, middle and an end. While Waiting for Godot is the most performed and influential of Beckett’s plays, Jones’s productions are hugely atmospheric with much to be taken from the strangeness of the settings and fine characterful performances which should please Beckett fans as well as providing plenty of thoughtful material for the journey home. Very interesting place the Old Vic at the moment, and these latest revivals suggest that this theatre is far from entering its endgame.

Endgame and Rough for Theatre II are at the Old Vic until 28 March with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Lungs – The Old Vic

Lungs - Old Vic (by Helen Maybanks)

“We’re good people aren’t we?” wonders the neurotic couple at the center of Duncan Macmillan’s play that examines attitudes to climate change by contrasting the theoretical and statistical conscience of W and M with their desire and fundamental biological drive to procreate. And in the week where Extinction Rebellion continue to make headlines with protests all over London and in the context of inspirational messaging from Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough’s major appeal to cut single-use plastics, the effects of human behaviour on the world and its immediate future couldn’t be more relevant. But while Macmillan uses the planetary effects of child rearing as a frame for Lungs, his focus is on the two flawed people at the centre of all this confusion, wondering what it means to be a good person and still get all the things you want.

And Lungs is far more than an extended rant with Macmillan’s intriguing structural approach being one of the most notable features of the play. Performed in the round on a platform of solar panels with mounds of rocky earth breaking through the otherwise flat structure designed by Rob Howell, Lungs has no scene changes or visible locations. Instead, time, place and the activities or changes in between are only revealed through the text in a continuous flow much like life itself which never breaks so neatly into distinct chapters. Reference to a particular location such as the Ikea car park with only a beat between one scene and the next is the basis for much of the play’s humour, where the audience only later discover that the shocking, emotionally turbulent or intimate conversation we’ve eavesdropped on is happening in an unexpected place, often to hilarious effect.

The lack of scenery and any attempt by the actors to indicate location may sound like a strange and disconcerting experience, one that would surely alienate an audience from the story Macmillan is telling. Yet, while Lungs borrows the clothes of Brechtian and absurdist drama, in Director Matthew Warchus’s interpretation, on the contrary, the viewer is not only drawn into the central relationship but the approach also makes the issues and emotions they face feel more universal, as though any of us could graft these conversations onto our own lives. Throughout the play, this creates considerable investment in the outcome, with occasional gasps of  surprise reverberating around the auditorium as information is slowly revealed in the final third that alters what we know – until this point, you may not have even realised you cared about them so much.

Much of this is down to Macmillan’s impressive characterisation which, like the minimalist approach to staging, is more engaging than perhaps the pen portraits developed in the early scenes suggests. On paper, there are many things about this play that shouldn’t work; the dramatic direction of the story isn’t revelatory, some of the twists are fairly predictable, even cliched, while the bulk insertion of climate change data that both characters recite at each other should feel really clunky. But Macmillan achieves something remarkable by making his couple feel like people who would have read and memorised these kinds of facts in order to win a future theoretical argument with each other and their equally guilt-ridden friends (who we never see but are easy to imagine). And through this wordy but warmly engaging dialogue between two people who thought they were entirely in harmony, Macmillan weaves some kind of magic, making us care about their deeply flawed and muddle-headed reality.

Part of the success of Lungs is that this is not the uber-liberal, finger-wagging climate change play you expect it to be, and although Macmillan’s overall message is that we are reaching the tipping point, he’s really examining why individual action may never be enough, that selfish human needs and decisions at the micro-level will always take priority whatever the consequences. We watch W and M agonise for a long time about the carbon footprint that having a child will engender, comparing it to the daily flights to New York they could take or similar. And yet, in spite of the angst they express, the theoretical cost doesn’t ultimately affect their decision to proceed or not, so how much of their intellectual debate is lip-service to developing trends in expected middle class behaviours? And while Macmillan takes the opportunity to skewer the cosy ideas of recycling, energy-saving bulbs and organic shopping that make us and them feel like good people, the focus remains on the interaction between the couple.

W is a character you assume will come to be incredibly frustrating during the 100-minute run time. She explodes onto the stage in a mass of confused thoughts, over-processed reactions and exaggerated emphasis, the kind of person who lacks the ability to differentiate between internal monologue and vocalised emotions. When boyfriend M suggests they consider having a baby her mind is thrown into disarray from which a virtually uninterrupted monologue emerges that essentially continues throughout the play as she attempts to process, rationalise and cope with the events that follow.

What is so interesting about Macmillan’s writing is how rapidly we warm to W, how the muddy hypothesising that tries to make logical sense of her situation and the conflicted principles it creates in her mind fight a losing battle against the biological impulse to create and nurture life – not necessarily because a child is something she desperately wants or because of declining fertility, but because a child becomes an act of both genetic legacy and of continuation, where two ancestral lines come together – arguments W obliquely makes in a debate about the wider context of child rearing. Through this we come to feel the confusion, warmth and loneliness that W experiences on a trajectory that takes the couple in an unexpected direction.

By contrast, M is more straightforward, certainly in his emotional responses if not necessarily in being any less neurotic than his girlfriend. M’s view of the world seems clearer, more basic, as though acts can be committed and then taken back if you rethink. So like climate change, the choice to have a child is reversible in his view, that nature can be controlled, harnessed and contained with enough human determination – and when the might of nature strikes back at this couple in two distinct ways the folly of their over-planning is revealed. Although M raises the question of children, he could just as easily be asking if they should get a takeaway for dinner so casually is the topic introduced and so poorly considered before he speaks.

The path they take is one that finds M emotionally at odds with his partner, developing feelings his cannot express and equally unable to understand her needs. Macmillan again has taken what could be a fairly generic male character and turns his own confused outlook into something we can at least relate to if not exactly sympathise with. The enormity of a child and the enormity of the climate change problem are to M the same unscalable dilemma and his response to both becomes occasionally insensitive, even weak if not surprising. He’s not painted as an out and out villain but instead Macmillan makes his efforts seem, small, bumbling, inept and very human.

The reunion of The Crown co-leads Claire Foy and Matt Smith is a big coup for the Old Vic given the rare appearances both are able to make on stage, as well as being a well-timed one given that the next generation Netflix cast will unveil the new series in mid-November. Both are superb here and entirely believable as the couple who use words and principles to mask their deep love for one another – and it is this rather than their need to save the world or share it with a child that keeps them together. This sits under Macmillan’s story as he takes the couple through some difficult times.

Together Foy and Smith manage the technical flow of the play extremely well, building the relationship as well as the changing locations and time periods with little more than a breath between scenes. They make you care about these people, grounding them in a credibility and reality that slowly counteracts the difficult personality traits that Macmillan has given them. Foy arguably has the more complex character, W is a bundle of contradictions, a woman who seems to imprison her emotions in logic, someone whose life is always planned, clear and filled with direction expressed in continual verbiage. What is so interesting about this performance is seeing how W responds to surprises – of which there are many in this play – and Foy’s particular gift is for revealing W’s instinctual needs and how they emerge from her controlled exterior. What seems neurotic initially becomes increasingly touching as Foy builds W’s emotional state where she can no longer control her responses, it’s a brilliant and illuminating performance.

M has less depth as a character and spends much of the play mutely listening or enduring W’s verbal assault, yet Smith navigates the character’s contradictions really well, suggesting a man who wants a quiet life but is still deeply attracted to this very complicated woman. Smith also suggest the small hurts that affect M’s responses to W as the story unfolds, the build-up of his own sense of isolation and inability to cope with the pressure of these scenarios that take the pair into uncharted territory. His storyline may not take M anywhere unusual but Smith ensures you understand why he behaves as he does and remain invested in the outcome.

Lungs suggests that not only will nature make its own way through our lives however much we try to plan every detail, and while the concept of a child may be the engine of the story, it is never really the point. The wonderful connection between Foy and Smith adds an extra dimension to the text, the perfect fit of this imperfect couple is truly at the heart of this play. The last 10-minutes feel tacked-on, a look into the future that breaks the spell and makes for a weaker conclusion than this play deserves, but it does have a purpose and Macmillan is challenging us to see that individual action is really so small in the face of the climate problem, that we may congratulate ourselves on the things we do to make a difference, but ultimately those contributions are insufficient because no one is prepared to make the big sacrifices we need. Maybe we are good people but perhaps none of us are really good enough.

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


A Very Expensive Poison – The Old Vic

A Very Expensive Poison - Old Vic

It’s not often a show leaves you unsure what to think, usually you come down on one side of the other, you will know whether you think it was good or bad storytelling, if the methods of the playwright and director do justice to the narrative, and whether you have enjoyed yourself or not. Sometimes, these things are not mutually exclusive, you can enjoy yourself without thinking it was a great play or you can admire the use of theatrical devices while knowing they conceal more fundamental faults. Either way, you usually know how you feel.

But Lucy Prebble’s new play A Very Expensive Poison, which enjoyed a luxurious two-week preview period, may leave you grappling with conflicting emotions, unable to quite locate, interpret or even name the exact response it has provoked. Her tale of the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko is framed as a murder mystery, one that takes the audience back in time to Mother Russia to understand how the Litvinenko family ended up in England – where citizenship had recently been granted – and just who was responsible for ordering and carrying out the death of Alexander. The play quite rightly asks some very big questions not just about the freedom of foreign operatives to undertake political business and state-mandated assassination attempts on British soil and the apparent disdain for sovereignty and international law that this suggests, but also, in our era of fake news and narrative deception, how easy is it to lose sight of the real people the headlines affect.

Starting with the positives and Prebble’s clearly well-researched play has much to say about the ownership of storytelling, and while these themes are not elucidated with the power and purpose that perhaps this subject deserves, there is a desire to understand how alternative perspectives are both created and subsequently adopted as the ultimate ‘truth.’ There is a coming together in Prebble’s work of both the ‘great men of history’ theory and the notion that ‘history is written by the winners’, particularly when the full armory of state propaganda is at hand and recent historiography has attempted to address the notable gaps in our knowledge of a past shaped by the immediate personal, political and nationalistic needs of the present.

The storyteller themselves also cannot escape their own bias, where their view of the world is shaped by where and when they grew up and the socio-cultural, economic and political experience of their lives. The information she provides offers fascinating context to an event that few audience members would know beyond the series of headlines a decade ago and a famous front-page image of the dying man. The way in which Prebble excavates Litvinenko’s earlier life and situates it not only in his prior work in the FSB but his record of inconveniently standing up to the corruption and misuse of power he observed in his colleagues starts to make sense of what was far from a random attack. One of the most interesting aspects of  A Very Expensive Poison is the shifting narrative that Prebble employs to demonstrate how Litvinenko’s story has been purposefully controlled by state actors in the UK and Russia to further and protect existing alliances.

We are show clearly in the second Act that investment in the UK by Russia through property and business connections helped to drive the official response which for a long time denied the Litvinenko family any true justice. How this is fed through the show is managed with interesting technique revealing the layers of FSB administration that distanced senior officials from the crime. One of the show’s highlights is a sinister, knowing performance from Reece Shearsmith playing Putin as a finger-drumming comic-book villain, and it is during one of his speeches that the audience is introduced to the idea that what we are seeing is only one perspective on events, something which he counters with an “official” version just before the interval, insisting we needn’t return for Act Two now he’s revealed the play’s happy ending. Dismayed to see us all again, Shearsmith’s Putin occupies the boxes on the sides of the Old Vic auditorium where, like the Critics from the Muppets, he is able to comment on scenes being played out, arguing against their veracity.

Appropriately, it does encourage the viewer to think about how the presentation of all news and events through the Internet, newspapers and other media are controlled by external forces, how what we see everyday is pre-processed, smoothed and constructed to create a precise impression, spoon-feeding the public only what they need to know. If you take anything away from A Very Expensive Poison then to leave with these two notions of his former career and the context in which Litvinenko’s death occurred, as well this concept of narrative manipulation are the aspects of Prebble’s work that are most successful.

But there is a downside, and by drawing attention to the falsity of these narratives it highlights the play’s own contribution to public storytelling which for all its insistence on this being Marina Litvinenko’s story, to which she  contributed and is the driving force, you become increasingly conscious of the writer’s hand, that this is Prebble’s version of Marina’s version of Litvinenko’s experience of his Russian colleagues in a central knot that the play never quite unravels. It is the presentation of this information and the staging techniques applied to the story that are so troubling and this is the source of the unresolved conflict in your thoughts.

There is a sense of levity across the production that sits uncomfortably with the protracted and very painful death that Alexander Litvinenko suffered for, as Prebble forcefully argues, merely speaking out. There is nothing wrong per se with using entertainment to educate, and the positive audience and critical responses furiously promoted by the theatre on social media suggest that many viewers have loved and been deeply moved by the events of this play. But you are also bombarded with theatrical approaches, an exhausting barrage of styles and ideas designed quite purposefully  – and some may even say manipulatively – to make the subject matter “fun.”

And there is a huge amount going on here, mixing a variety of visual styles to keep you involved. As well as straight-forward dramatic scenes several characters also break the fourth wall,  stepping out of Tom Scutt’s box-shaped set to address the audience, first MyAnna Buring’s Marina, but also Tom Brooke’s Alexander and Shearsmith’s Putin later do the same. As the story unfolds the set gives way, opening-out into the warehouse-like expanse of the Old Vic backstage area emphasising Prebble’s increasingly meta approach concluding with audience members being asked to read excerpts from Litvinenko’s final message into a microphone from their seats.

But director John Crowley and Prebble continue to pull apart the norms of storytelling as actors in giant satirical costumes of Russia’s leading politicians of the late twentieth-century invade the stage as a reference to the Spitting Image-type show that the family had been watching on TV. Later there is an alligator hand-puppet and performers wearing full-sized ballroom dancer models strapped to back and front to create a crowd scene (a bit Generation Game). And there is more visual spectacle to come as the small platform stage moves back and forth to create space for the overarching police investigation that connects the pieces together as well as serving as the three London locations where the poisoning may have happened, the stage for a series of Music Hall acts to accompany Putin’s introduction to Act Two and even a party of disco-dancing Russians – if that sounds simultaneously inventive and exhausting then, well, it is, A Very Expensive Poison doesn’t hold back on the visual assault.

Yet, the audience doesn’t really learn anything new either, this is not a radical re-positioning of public knowledge on the Litvinenko case, but a descriptive history that rarely delves beneath the surface. With the poisoner suspects presented as a blur of cliches, what do generic and stereotyped Russian accents and characters really add to our understanding of why this happened? Wouldn’t Litvinenko be better served by trying to understand a nation where friends and colleagues betray each other at the state’s behest, where personal loyalty means very little and the fear of reprisals, the rise and fall of powerful men and the consequences of betrayal can last for decades. Yes we find out who did it, but we still barely know why.

Buring as Marina is the only significant female character in the play but is given next to nothing to do except plead. There is little sense of Marina as a woman in her own right, who she was outside of the roles of wife, mother and campaigner in which the play confines her. Always an actor who finds many layers, Brooke fares much better as the tragic Alexander drawing out a sense of Litvineko’s pragmatism, a quiet, good natured man looking to do the right thing but with a dogged determination to expose corruption. There’s excellent support from Shearsmith as the sinister and comic uber-villain Putin, as well as Gavin Spokes as the police detective.

Prebble has self-depricatingly referred to the show as “messy” in pre-interviews and it is in several ways; some of the bombast feels superfluous in a story that should be exciting enough on its own. It is fun and silly and engaging but it also trivialises to a degree, and when the play tries to regain lost ground with its serious final passage it loses impact, the seriousness partially undermined by the presentation of this crime as a hoot. Prebble has serious arguments to outlay about the relationship between international governments and narrative misdirection but the broadly comic approach to presentation feels at odds with the meaning of the play. Audiences love it and the critics have largely raved about A Very Expensive Poison but there will be some of us in the middle who just don’t know what to think. Clever and entertaining certainly, but given a man died in horrible circumstances perhaps it’s also a bit glib.

A Very Expensive Poison is at the Old Vic until 5 October with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Present Laughter – The Old Vic

Present Laughter - The Old Vic (by Manuel Harlan)

Noel Coward is a rather misunderstood and misrepresented writer in modern theatre; like Oscar Wilde, these days his work can be reduced to little more than a string of witty epigrams and famous phrases woven together into some increasingly outrageous plot, it’s all rather cosy – light comic farces perfect for an undemanding Saturday matinee. And regardless of whether the focus has a more rural setting or the stylish inhabitants of Paris and London, current presentations of Coward’s work come loaded with nostalgia for the 1930s and 40s, a period sentimentality about clothes and furniture which undeservedly preserve his work in aspic.

But all of this is a distraction from the various currents that flow through Coward’s plays, many of which balance humour and emotion to differing degrees. Coward was a prolific writer and while the West End has seen plenty of Hayfevers and versions of Blithe Spirit in the past decade – with a film version of the latter in production – his more complex works appear with far less frequency and colours our opinion of a more varied playwright than we ever have a chance to see.

The same writer who penned Madame Arcarti’s hilarious trance scene and left Elyot and Amanda throwing things at each other, also revealed the intense despair of drug addiction as mother and son battle with their demons in The Vortex, impressively revived as long ago as 2008 with Felicity Kendal and Dan Stevens. Such experiences reflected the aftermath of the era in which Coward lived, written in 1924 and presaging a time when the Bright Young Things would have to face a darker reality. But Coward’s perspective on relationships was equally revealing and even revolutionary. He may have broken our hearts with the gentle tragedy of Laura and Alec’s doomed love affair in Still Life (later filmed as Brief Encounter) but plays like 1933’s Design for Living involving a ménage a trois were morally and sexually ahead of their time. Let’s not forget that later in life Coward embraced the work of Harold Pinter and saw a kindred spirit eager to reframe the language of theatre.

Clearly Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus agrees and his new production of Present Laughter successfully jettisons a lot of the baggage of a Noel Coward play – the heavy sets, the knowing tone and obvious build-up to the famous lines – to create a production that rides the waves of comedy that Coward so carefully builds into the play’s construction while giving just enough room for the introspective moments that give his characters, or at least his themes, a grounding in reality. Led by yet another astonishingly good performance from Andrew Scott, by giving Present Laughter room to breathe the result is pure joy.

The Old Vic seems to be on a roll, hosting the West Ends debuts of Bill Pullman, Sally Field and Jenna Coleman in a memorable version of All My Sons was a huge coup and suddenly there is a new buzz about the place with an unmissable year ahead including a new play by Enron writer Lucy Prebble, a stage reunion for The Crown stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs and Beckett’s Endgame with Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe. Andrew Scott’s return to this theatre as egoist actor Garry Essendine looks set to consolidate The Old Vic’s status as the place to be for the next few months.

An excellent touring version of Present Laughter with Samuel West in the title role made it to Richmond in 2016 but the last West End production was at the National Theatre in 2007 with Alex Jennings. It is one of Coward’s finest comedies, examining the dual nature of celebrity where craved attention ultimately becomes a burden, and Coward simultaneously asks questions about sexual morality. Essendine has a wife he never divorced but he, and his circle, spend most of the play actively bedhopping about which the frustrated Garry speaks honestly in one of his finest speeches in Act IV.

Matthew Warchus’s production adds a modern twist by playing with sexual fluidity, making barely perceptible changes to the text to give Garry both male and female lovers. It works extremely well and if you had never seen the play before it would seem always to have been written this way. While this approach is becoming increasingly commonplace in classic revivals, here there is clear consideration of the wider purpose. Coward has points to make about the complex nature of attraction and how honest people are with themselves and others about their desires. Garry’s whims may come and go, but he is open about his need for one-night stands to bring comfort in his loneliest moments because he is unable to sustain a longer relationship. This exploration of physical desire in all its forms as a means to an end, as a distraction from Garry’s feelings of hollowness and vulnerability are fundamental to Coward’s play, so the gender and sexuality switches make perfect sense for a character desperate to be loved entirely on his own terms.

The tone of this production is quite meticulous and while the farce is allowed to unfold sometimes with considerable exuberance, there is a real confidence in how Warchus manages the build-up to the mini comic climax of each scene as well as the cumulative effect of that across the show. You feel that as director Warchus is fully in control however wild his characters become, succeeding because he well understands the rhythm of Coward’s text and those all-important currents that sit beneath the surface of the play. There is a crucial ebb and flow to the emotional responses in Present Laughter and Warchus’s skill is to recognise the ultimate poignancy of a play which occasionally creates a cartoonish silliness but is brilliantly counterbalanced by moments of genuine reflection and fear in which the characters come up against the emptiness of their lives, sometimes suddenly, sometimes creeping slowly across the scene until it starts to make sense of everything else that happens.

There is never an easy Andrew Scott performance, he’s not an actor to sit back and there is an intensity to all his creations. However lightly he wears it, he always finds the tipping point in each of the characters he plays, carefully pushing the balance as the production unfolds. It may seem like mania or wackiness but there is always a deep understanding of the intellectual and emotional drivers that create a real humanity in his performances, giving Scott the freedom to explore the absurd but also to dig into the more moving emotional distress beneath the surface to explain extreme behaviour.

Scott’s Hamlet was an intensely visceral experience, an overused word in theatre but applicable in the “excoriation of soul” that his broken and crumbling Prince of Denmark experienced, his grief and pain a vivid, almost physical presence in a genuinely heartbreaking performance. Here, as Garry Essendine, Scott gets to have a lot more fun playing with the role’s liveliness and timing to deliver a highly theatrical but surprisingly self-aware character whose better judgement is easily diverted by devoted admirers. Garry is elaborate, highly-strung, selfish, hysterical and sometimes childishly petulant but as with his Hamlet, we see a greater complexity within that speaks to Garry’s fear of ageing, possible loss of prowess and, most affectingly, a genuine loneliness that a string of meaningless encounters can never dispel. Like many Coward creations there is a level of self-deception that Scott finds but can only sustain while there is an audience for Garry to perform to.

Refreshingly, Scott speaks Coward’s lines as though Garry has just thought of them, there’s no sense of waiting for the big joke, instead he captures the rhythm of Coward’s dialogue leaving him free to be both inventive with the delivery style and genuinely hilarious. Throughout, Scott incorporates a raft of expressions and physical gestures that enhance the meaning of the line, used sparingly but to great effect. He knows precisely when to overplay Garry’s eternal performance using his dramatic side to get what he wants, and when to underplay the more insightful aspects in a role that reaches a very high comic pitch on several occasions. Yet his actions and increasingly frantic frustrations still feel both real and very human.

Scott gives this fascinating sense of fame’s illusory nature and within his creation demonstrates the extent to which other characters project their own impressions onto Garry, never quite seeing who he really is, and, as a consequence, there is an emptiness lingering beneath the surface. The comedy is wonderfully done but it’s the smaller moments of genuine connection with his lovers, of paranoia about the intrigues around him and Garry’s quiet sadness when he’s finally left alone that you will remember.

But Present Laughter is far more than a one-man show and Coward supplies a cast of comic secondary characters who all exist for a reason as part of the overall chaos that unfolds. There is a generosity within this Company that allows each performer to build their own relationship with the audience and maximise the humour in every role. Indira Varma as Garry’s wife Liz is entirely unimpressed and unflustered by her estranged husband’s behaviour, yet she is both less maternal and warmer than other interpretations. Varma’s Liz is genuinely concerned without seeming controlling, there is a sense of a real life beyond these walls which Garry’s behaviour constantly interrupts, and while Liz calmly appraises every situation exactly, there is an undercurrent of deterministic self-sacrifice in which only she can resolve the play’s sexual muddles.

Varma develops a lovely confederacy with Sophie Thompson’s Monica, Garry’s jaded and long-standing secretary. The time given to this supportive friendship is brief but important in establishing the long-awaited crisis point the play reaches. Affecting a light Scottish accent, Thompson keeps tight control of the characterisation, playing it fairly straight with a no-nonsense approach that continually refuses to indulge Garry’s moods or pander to his behaviour which results in a number of scene stealing lines that earn peals of laughter from the audience.

Notable work too from Luke Thallon – who so impressed in Pinter Five – as eager fan Roland Maule. With the sexual dynamics opened-up by this production, Thallon is given free rein to turn Roland’s obsessive enthusiasm into a puppyish devotion to Garry, bounding into the room with an incredible energy. Likewise, Joshua Hill as servant Fred, who shares some of his master’s lascivious tastes has his own range of brilliantly timed nods and winks as two men of the world converse to hilarious effect.  Every time these characters appear on stage they are enthusiastically received – it’s heartening to see early-career performers holding their own among the big stars everyone came to see and earning equal adulation from the audience.

Rob Howell’s gorgeous set has just enough 1930s detailing to imply era without being too rigorous about it, adding lots of art deco stylings and lounging spaces suitable for the home of an actor at the height of his fame, but Howell has also created an expansiveness that offers physical and emotional room for the sexual openness that Warchus draws so well from Coward’s text. The Old Vic’s production finally feels as though we’re shaking off some of the restraints that have shackled Coward to the past. So, let’s retire the caricatures of witty men with cigarette holders because Noel Coward’s importance as a stage practitioner is far more interesting than that, and this joyful production of Present Laughter is simply a wonderful night at the theatre.

Present Laughter is at The Old Vic until 10 August with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Mood Music – The Old Vic

Mood Music - The Old Vic

Another week, another brand new play arrives in London, the fourth in as many weeks, and the second successive opening to focus on female creativity and the nature of toxic masculinity. Despite being obsessed with reflections of its own image, captured in films like All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard or TV shows including Smash, which have long reflected the the scheming arrogance, male-dominated power-structures, falsity and inherent cruelty of showbusiness, the entertainment industry, it seems, had barely changed in decades. Now, in the wake of successive scandals that began with Operation Yewtree and culminated in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, an unyielding light is shining into every corner.

The consequence of all this is the beginnings of a notable shift in how the various branches of commercialised art are managed and sustained, and these industries have rarely had to respond so readily to the widespread rot and abuses of power that have filled our newspages for many months. But will it really be so easy to dismantle? Joe Penhall’s new play Mood Music which opens at The Old Vic on Wednesday is set in the music industry, and examines the complex and tricky personalities whose deep and longstanding knowledge of how the ‘business’ works means they have become adept at manipulating every system, using their power to control everyone around them.

Like Ella Hickson’s The Writer, Mood Music considers the ways in which male-dominated structures affect the creation of female art, where inspiration comes from, and the problematic border between collaboration and ownership within our existing creative environment. It asks important questions about the boundary between celebrating and recognising achievement in a more experienced creator, while not allowing your own contribution to be pushed aside, and the extent to which stars use their art and the adulation of others to fulfil a deep void in themselves.

Cat is a young female songwriter in the midst of a legal battle with middle-aged producer Bernard over the creative credit of her big song. Both insist they added the magic ingredient that made the song a hit and catapulted Cat to fame. But as the audience learns how their relationship became so acrimonious, shocking details of their working life together start to emerge as the entertainment lawyers attempt to build a case. With both parties also in therapy, embittered by their experiences, can they learn to be generous about each other’s art or will the business always win?

Penhall creates a multi-layered narrative which brings the audience into three different sets of conversation all happening simultaneously. The narrative is initially dominated by Bernard and Cat’s discussion with their therapists as they put forward their perspective, recount events and reveal what shaped their personalities, but quickly Penhall intersperses interactions with both their lawyers and occasionally restages scenes from their studio sessions. It sounds complex, but works extremely effectively in practice, allowing the play to break free of traditional scene structures, change shape and maintain a constant rhythm throughout its two-hour runtime.

And while it has plenty to say about the toxicity of the entertainment industry, where young hopefuls seemingly stand little chance of besting established figures with nothing to lose, this message is fairly subtle at first, becoming stronger and clearer as the story unfolds. This is no finger wagging piece of drama, yelling its message at the audience or deliberately exaggerating scenarios to create the right effect, but instead suggests a highly credible picture of people with nothing but their own interests to attend to.

Penhall trusts in the strength of his multifaceted central characters to essentially undo themselves, showing that while there may be minor fault on both sides, ultimately Bernard is all too real an archetype that whether you work in showbusiness, in a normal office or any other kind of workplace, you will know men who think like him. For all that, he is a fascinating creation and one that displays both the charm and enthusiasm for his work that attracts Cat to his talent in the first place, as well as the mind-blowing lack of empathy that make him entirely self-contained. And while you’re laughing at his coldness, Penhall’s trick is to let us see underneath just for a moment, not just to write him off as abominable, but to understand why. And if you understand why you can do something to change it.

Playing Bernard, Ben Chaplin is outstanding, managing to be completely engaging and utterly repellent at the same time. Careful not to muddy the focus with any suggestion of a sexual connection with Cat, Bernard sees himself as a perennial victim, delivering most of his lines with boredom, as if he cannot believe he’s in this ridiculous situation when everyone must know he wrote all the music. Chaplin offers a very clever performance that amplifies Bernard’s arrogance, selfishness and fatal lack of empathy, but without overstatement, he always feels unpleasantly real but charming enough that on more than one occasion you almost believe his version of events.

At the same time, Chaplin implies the grand delusion of a man who sees the world entirely on his own terms, and cannot conceive of anyone else’s thoughts, feelings or imagination. He suggests both strength and self-sufficiency as well as a tragic loneliness and an inability to genuinely connect to anyone else, driven by nods to his childhood experience. He is blinkered but doesn’t know it, and Chaplin gives life to one of Penhall’s key themes on the relationship between emotional damage and the need to seek control.

While Penhall’s female lead endures being patronised and pushed aside, she’s also full of human complexity that allow the audience sympathies to swing occasionally between the protagonists. It’s a cunning way to demonstrate how easily we are all manipulated by Bernard’s particular view of the facts – its not even that he twists them, he genuinely thinks his interpretation is right. Cat is given her own demons to contend with including addiction issues and frequent references to an idolised father that ensure her feeling towards Bernard remain ambiguous even well into to the legal dispute. None of this is meant to excuse Bernard’s conduct, but to demonstrate how young female behaviours are used to judge and condemn in a way they’re not for men.

Seana Kerslake gives Cat both a naievity about the industry and a determination to keep fighting for the right to own the music she created. As the play continues, Kerslake presents a complex picture of a young woman with her own emotional baggage that affects the personal and musical choices she makes, unable to control her impulse to escape and being forced into the shadows by her overbearing collaborator. We see a performer who becomes recognisably self-destructive in a way that many young artists have, but Kerslake plays this credibly as we see the effect on the relationships with those around her and a growing irritation with being controlled even by therapists and lawyers.

There is a degree of hero-worship in her response to Bernard that never entirely disappears, even when it becomes impossible to work together she still admires his talent, with Kerslake even suggesting a touch of regret that working with an idol has been so difficult. Her performance taps into some of Mood Music’s more difficult questions about whether the creation of great art is worth the pain of collaboration in an industry populated by ‘damaged’ people, and if individual brilliance is ever possible without someone to push an artist to their extremes.

The supporting cast are deliberately more anonymous and less rounded, used as reflections on the central characters or the industry that shapes them. Jemma Redgrave and Pip Carter are the therapists whose sympathetic air wanes as their clients begin to question what role they’re really playing in the power structure, while Kurt Egyiawan and Neil Stuke are the respective entertainment lawyers who try to play the system to get the best deal for their clients. Interesting to see Chaplin and Stuke in the same production having once played the same role in the 90s sitcom Game On.

On Hildegard Bechtler’s thrust stage that emulates a recording studio meets therapy session with a curtain of hanging microphones and scattered chairs, the design approach suggests both simplicity and complexity, reflecting the characters’ creative abilities but ultimately giving them nothing to hide behind. Director Roger Mitchell uses the full extent of the stage to keep the action flowing, which is particularly tricky in the rapid transitions between conversations that in the space of a line can switch to an entirely different scenario, time and place. But ultimately, Mitchell and Bechtler provide a showcase for the characters, allowing them to reveal their own failings to the audience.

Mood Music’s focus on ownership in collaboration is a fascinating and engaging examination of the power structures in the entertainment industry, and while it may seem petty for the characters break down a single song to fight over every bridge, chord or lyric, when art is for sale, personal and professional betrayal are never far behind – the overriding commercialisation of every piece of art means that ultimately the winner will always be the industry and never the creator.

Mood Music is at The Old Vic until 16 June and tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


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