Tag Archives: Tom Edden

Cyrano de Bergerac – Playhouse Theatre

Cyrano de Bergerac - Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company

It has been an extraordinary and prolific year for Jamie Lloyd with a huge array of works in performance that have earned considerable acclaim. As 2019 dawned, we were in the midst of the Pinter at the Pinter season with Collections Five and Six facing the press shortly after the New Year. In February, Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman completed the anthology series with The Dumb Waiter, and then there was Betrayal. Brilliantly reimagined for the Harold Pinter Theatre, the production starring Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox tranfered to Broadway where the New York Times reviewer hailed it an interpretation he seemed ‘destined to think about forever.’ But Lloyd was far from finished and an extraordinary reinvigoration of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita dominated the Regent’s Park Summer Season which gave fresh life to what many had felt was a 1970s period piece.

Lloyd excels at deconstructing classics and remodelling them for modern theatre, simplifying and decluttering the history of performance to find new emotional resonance in the original text. Any of the aforementioned productions may well feature in the forthcoming awards season (with Evita already taking trophies at the Evening Standard Awards), but before the year ends Lloyd has one more gift for us, the launch of a brand new season at The Playhouse Theatre where regular collaborator James McAvoy stars in the inaugural show, an achingly modern and exciting version of Cyrano de Bergerac adapted by Martin Crimp.

Crimp in fact bookends the year, staring 2019 with his fascinating (but hugely divisive) When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, a reworking of Pamela starring Cate Blanchette and Stephen Dillane. Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the last West End shows to face the press this year and Crimp has captured the essence of Edmond Rostand’s late nineteenth-century original with its devotion to language, poetry and the power of words to convey every aspect of human emotion. It is notably a verse play, one that uses groups of rhyming couplets throughout its five act structure, so the easiest path to contemporisation would be to turn it into a prose piece, but Crimp resists and instead utilises the rhythms and speed of urban poetry and rap to give his characters and themes their modern voice.

It is very skillfully done, sustained across the three-hour run-time to both hilarious and emotive effect. As Cyrano and his agitator lock horns in the opening Act their ensuing duel essentially becomes a poetry slam, trading insults in the back and forth at a blazing pace with considerable rhythmic complexity. Crimp plays with the language so that the rhyme is sometimes masked, coming mid-sentence and even occasionally mid-syllable or using assonance to prevent the dialogue becoming too sing-song in the delivery. But there is also a consciousness about the way characters speak, drawing on Cyrano’s renown as a soldier-poet and actively commenting on the mutual skill of the verse club that gathers at Ragueneau’s cafe, as well as distinguishing the marked shift to prose occurring during the period of the play’s setting (1640-1655). It is a subtle meta-theatrical expression that  adds social commentary while also marking a key shift in the history of performance, creating the notion of something significant coming to an end which frames the plot.

In bringing Cyrano de Bergerac to the stage, Jamie Lloyd once again demonstrates the clarity with which he always sees a classic text, stripping away the layers of earlier interpretation and popular culture expectation to deliver something that feels admirably pure. Soutra Gilmour designs an MDF box with only a few microphones and chairs from which the actors will use words to create this pseudo-seventeenth-century setting. Later, the back of the box lifts out to create more performance space with wooden steps to give added depth to the war scenes and Jon Clark’s atmospheric lighting design to subtly shift the mood from the bawdy humour of the encamped poet-soldiers to the dimly lit interior heartache of Cyrano’s tortured soul.

The emphasis as ever with Lloyd is on the text and like his radio-play staging of A Slight Ache in Pinter at the Pinter Collection Seven, the strength of language is relished and celebrated, allowing the emotional force of the work to build and resonate. Lloyd controls the fine balance between the play’s strong masculine energy coming from the encamped army and the softer mood of both the romantic plot and the emphasis on poetry and expression. Both elements work comprehensively and credibly together, feeding the unfolding narrative with Lloyd easily switching the tone as the two stories enfold and intersect.

The sense of machismo is particularly felt in the early scenes as the intensity of Cyrano’s arrival and his laddish interaction with his comrades builds to a bare-chested maul that instantly establishes their Company dynamic and loyalty. Yet, the group equally express their sensitivity and individuality through the poetry competition that ultimately makes the return to war and the seeming hopelessness of their predicament in the penultimate scene so effective, the careful staging creating order and unison in their coordinated movement and military stance.

Crucial to the establishment of Cyrano as a character, the audience needs to believe that he is both a military leader and overwhelmed by unrequited love for Roxanne. And while previous interpretations have emphasised the comedy, particularly Cyrano’s enormous nose (on screen especially), McAvoy’s approach eschews a nasal prosthetic to create a man tormented by inner demons that affect the way he seems himself and his own attitude to happiness. At every point McAvoy radiates complexity with a duality that feels almost Macbeth-like, as a powerful masculinity visible to the outside world fights with a broken interior life that alters his destiny and purpose. Driven by inevitability, where Macbeth is motivated by power, Cyrano is by an ungovernable love he can neither satisfy or resist, one that will consume and ultimately destroy him.

Always a strong stage presence, McAvoy delivers both aspects of Cyrano’s personality with skill, creating an imposing soldierly presence, glowering and menacing as he takes control of the play scene, a man comfortable with the use of violence and its consequences as well as arrogant about his own ability to make demands and control situations. In the emotional unfolding to come, the way in which McAvoy slowly dismantles Cyrano’s outward armour is extraordinary, revealing the layers of self-abasement beneath. In a number of highly affecting soliloquies in which McAvoy holds the audience in thrall, Cyrano painfully describes observing the normalcy of other people, jealously noting the couples around him and piteously describing the physical deformity holding him back from the easy happiness of others.

The decision to avoid a fake nose is a shrewd one in this stripped-back production which adds a layer of deep psychological wound to Cyrano’s soul, allowing the audience to wonder if the barriers he perceives to his own happiness are truly physical or just in his mind – an outcome that adds to the growing heartache that increasingly pours forth. Even the comradely ribbing he receives from his fellow soldiers may reflect the group sensing weakness and, like children, using it to test the limits of their commander’s authority.

McAvoy is also a very fine theatre technician, relishing the complexity and challenge of Crimp’s complex rhythms to which he proves himself more than equal. The urban poetry rolls beautifully, and sometimes at considerable speed, in McAvoy’s native Scotch, with the actor mastering the rhythm so well that the dialogue springs naturally from the character and not enslaved by the artificiality of the tempo. Whether as himself or in an entertaining impersonation of love rival Christian’s very different speaking style, McAvoy uses his voice as an instrument to create and alter the tone of Cyrano’s expression, taking a more forceful approach to instructing his men while speaking in a lower, softer register, almost a whisper at times as he conveys the sincerity of his love for Roxanne when narrating the letters he writes so passionately to her, full of desperate yearning and painful separation.

These declarations are sentimental, even sugary and could so easily sound comic, but the sad tenderness with which McAvoy delivers them reveals the full excavation of soul the character experiences as hope is slowly and movingly extinguished. It is a wonderful performance, full of raw melancholic heartache that will make you simultaneously despair for his anguish and thrill at such a meaningful return to the stage.

With a scheme offering reduced price tickets to those on low incomes or wouldn’t usually go to the theatre, the supporting cast will feel like a recognisable community and a rare opportunity to see a classic work performed by a company that reflects the audience watching it. This may be badged as 1640 but dressed in jeans and tracksuits this feels like London in 2019. Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Roxanne is charming but tactless and selfish, pursuing her physical attraction to Christian without noticing Cyrano’s desolation. Crimp has used the character to make a number of contemporary points about the changing position of women, and it is notable that Uwajeh delivers a performance in which Roxanne takes charge of her own destiny, outwitting the men folk and determining a path for herself,  not letting so much as a battlefield stand in her way.

Eben Fugueiredo as Christian has an entertaining swagger that masks his own degree of doubt concerning his intellectual and romantic qualities, drawing him reasonably into Cyrano’s scheme, and while there is a moment in Act Four that feels awkwardly show-horned into the play to make an unclear point, Fugueiredo delivers Christian’s comic gormlessness well. Tom Edden as finger-drumming baddie De Guiche is also a comic delight, using a clipped RP delivery to convey the character’s evil machinations with glee, while Michele Austin adds a maternal touch as Cyrano’s friend and eventual confident Ragueneau, as well as embodying the community which her cafe serves and supports so well.

The simplicity of Jamie Lloyd’s approach seems deceptive at first, unsure whether the empty staging can truly sustain momentum over three hours, but the intimacy created by the microphones and the focus on the emotional and military currents of the play becomes utterly engaging. Freed from is exaggerated comic overtones and reimagined for the modern stage with a contemporary cast, this feels at every moment like theatre at its most exciting, liberating and inclusive. You always know that a production by this Company will play with your preconceptions to deliver something new, but Lloyd still manages to dazzle and surprise. It has been an exceptional year for the director and this latest collaboration with James McAvoy ensures that for Jamie Lloyd 2019 ends on a high.

Cyrano de Bergerac is at the Playhouse Theatre until 29 February with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Our Town – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Our Town - Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

For the last few months, London has been obsessed with the classic American drama and in an attempt to diversify, producers are taking risks on a greater variety of plays, risks that are paying off. While Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman are frequently revived the fresh vision of the Old and Young Vic respectively have reorientated our perspective on these famous pieces, while lesser-known work including The Price and The American Clock also made recent appearances in the West End. The Tennessee Williams back-catalogue has been equally well-plundered with a very nice revival of Orpheus Descending arriving at the Menier Chocolate Factory last week, a new West End version of Night of the Iguana in June, an evening of one act dramas at the King’s Head in July and next week a new version of The Glass Menagerie set in an African-American household.

Of course Williams and Miller’s fame and reputation will always sell tickets, even for their less illustrious work, but other writers can be a harder sell, so it’s interesting that the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has chosen to revive Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town which, despite its Pullitzer Prize, is not so well known in the UK. Wilder is one of the most prolific American writers you’ve probably never heard of, penning numerous plays and novels as well as a single film between 1926 and 1973, earning him a total of three Pullitzers – two for playwriting and one for a 1927 novel.

It’s certainly an interesting choice for the Open Air Theatre in what promises to be a season of interesting choices, not least Jamie’s Lloyd’s take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in August. Our Town is a both a strange and almost poetic experience, described as a meta-theatrical work, it uses the conventions of theatre to examine everyday life in small-town America while simultaneously commenting on the limited nature and understanding of human existence. Guided by the “Stage Manager” who directly addresses the audience, dispassionately narrating both the lives of the characters in the years between 1901 and 1913, and the geographical context of the fictional town that pointedly limits their entire existence.

Directed by Ellen McDougall, this new production takes a little while to get used to, particularly as Wilder’s style is to tell not show. The Stage Manager character is a calm and authoritative guide, but deliberately has no distinct personality of her own, she’s not trying to sell the brilliance of the town or in any way criticise the community Our Town reveals, but like the Chorus in Henry V, her purpose is to set the scene, asking the audience to imagine the layout of the town and passing of the years as she guides us through the three thematic Acts – Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Eternity.

Although much later than Wilder, the style is reminiscent of several films in the late 1940s and early 1950s that used voice-over narration to control the story, largely in film noir but occasionally in comedies as well. Equally, Lars von Trier’s Dogville comes to mind – which also used a narrator – in which the activities of a town are inferred rather than shown, and McDougall’s production is a similarly and purposefully alienating experience. As with these examples, Wilder doesn’t want the audience to become too embroiled in the minutia of living, the characters are deliberately thin and cipher-like, and the narrator is a device employed to keep us on the outside of the play. Instead, the cumulative and overall effect of Wilder’s play is to make the audience question the value of living quietly “two-by-two” as everyone else does and what more there could be.

The strength of the Open Air Theatre’s production is in its slow-build effect, that over the course of 2 hours reaches a meaningful conclusion. The final Act is by far the best, set several years after the previous events as the dead reflect on their former existence and the freedom that comes from no longer being alive. A new member unexpectedly joins their ranks who clings to the idea of their old life, desperate to go back and relive one day, despite advice to the contrary. For the first time, at this specific moment, McDougall and designer Rosie Elnile introduce a small detailed room, a confined space that quickly feels more like a trap than the happy memory the character hoped for.

Wilder deliberately conjures almost everything the audience needs to know within the text, so throughout the play very little staging is required. Elnile has filled the stage at the Open Air Theatre with raked seating, a curious decision that distracts from anything else and makes it far harder for the audience to imagine the store fronts, houses and hills that the Stage Manager asks us to picture. Its purpose, assumedly, is twofold, to reflect our own lives back at us, a mirror of similar flip-up seats to the ones we’ve paid to sit in, and possibly also to imply the 2000 other residents of Grover’s Corner referenced in the story.

Throughout the play, characters sit in different seats at various levels of the seating rig, make use of two small balconies to suggest windows and the aisles as though coming down to breakfast. It’s all been clearly choreographed by McDougall to spread the non-speaking actors around the scaffold-like construction to physically separate them and us from the action. But it doesn’t leave much room for the imagination to fill in the gaps and, as you’re trying to adjust to Wilder’s style in the 90-minute first half that combines Acts I and II, it dwarfs the scenes on the stage in front, so rather than facilitate the play the design is more often at odds with it.

Other approaches are less intrusive, and the performers wear modern clothes in a variety of bright colours apart from the narrator in black. At the start the actors line-up and the Stage Manager introduces them by their real name stating which character they will perform – this and the lack of period setting support Wilder’s desire not to immerse the audience in the story, actively preventing the theatrical illusion from taking hold from the start to ensure that we see ourselves  and the broader themes about life and community reflected on the stage.

As the Stage Manager Laura Rogers is a friendly but authoritative narrator. Taking Wilder’s cue, Rogers makes no obvious comment on the town and its people, the lines are delivered without sentiment or obvious allegiance to the area or any people as though the Stage Manager is a detached observer factually describing what she sees. Rogers engages well with the audience – the only character to do so directly – and is our tour guide around the world of the play, stopping scenes, creating new locations and occasionally playing some of the supernumeraries including the doddery owner of the soda shop.

We are not particularly expected to invest in the life of the townsfolk which is a tricky position for the rest of the cast. Their purpose is to represent the rolling nature of life, of births, marriages and deaths, of getting-up to make the family breakfast everyday for forty year while waiting for the paperboy. Nonetheless, they must imply the reality of lives they represent and that there are real people living like this all the time who, as Wilder suggests, are so drawn into the routines and expectations of society that they are perhaps unable to see life in perspective and, separately, its value.

Nominally, the audience follows two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs; Karl Collins and Pandora Colin as Dr and Mrs Gibb are pillars of the town and good friends with neighbours Thusitha Jayasundera and Tom Edden as Mrs and Editor Webb, the owner of the local newspaper. Together they are the picture of ordinary American society in the early twentieth century, the men work in respectable jobs, the women cook and raise the children, normal, unremarkable, decent families ordered by an externally-imposed structure to their day, none of them thinking beyond the preparations for dinner or disapproving local gossip about the drunken choir master (an amusing Peter Hobday).

We follow their children George Gibb played by Arthur Hughes and Francesca Henry as Emily Webb who share homework tips as teenagers before eventually marrying. Both convey the innocent enthusiasm of the school child morphing into shy lovers-to-be. Hughes has a particularly good scene with Edden as a future son-in law asks advice about marriage from Mr Webb on his wedding day, working through the doubts. Henry’s Emily comes into her own in Act III as the story takes her character in a different direction which allows her greater time to reflect on her life in which Henry suggests well both the enthusiasm for it and the pain it causes.

The staging choices in Our Town do impede the action to a degree, making it harder for the audience to imagine the streets and countryside that the Stage Manager describes to us, and given the backdrop of Regent’s Park it seems a shame to cover it up. All the actors have microphones but with so large a seating rig it’s not always instantly obvious who is speaking as the sound comes from the side speakers, and some of the general town scenes become lost. Over time, and especially by Act III, Our Town does start to work its magic and the audience sees Grover’s Corner as a place people live all their lives, where even the hooting railroad becomes nothing more than a symbol of freedom that no one ever uses.

With two more previews to go, Our Town has a little work to do to find a clearer rhythm for Acts I and II, working within the confines of the slightly restrictive staging they have chosen. It was a cold May evening and a number of people departed at the interval, but this production of Our Town is still a worthwhile and interesting experience. Wilder’s writing feels as fresh and innovative as it must have done in the 1930s and taking an early season risk on a less conventional play ultimately pays off. Most importantly, this new desire to look beyond the well-known classics is creating opportunities to rethink our relationship with the theatre past and, through new approaches to diversity and inclusion, reimagine them for the future.

Our Town is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 8 June with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Faustus – Duke of York’s Theatre

Faustus

April and May are big months for Games of Thrones fans, not only does the sixth season premiere next Sunday but two of its biggest young stars are taking to the London stage in back-to-back theatres. Next month Richard Madden (who played Robb Stark) opens as the lead in Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet alongside his Cinderella co-star Downton’s Lily James. First, however is Kit Harington in Jamie Lloyd’s much anticipated and lurid Faustus which starts press previews later this week with official reviews expected in the early hours of 26 April. Yet on leaving the theatre this weekend we were handed postcards actively asking for feedback which prompted this preview piece.

When an actor is widely associated with one particular role, it can be very difficult for audiences to see them as anyone else, and – especially when they’re young – for critics to forget they did anything before. Jon Snow may have made Harington an international star, but his theatre experience includes highly credible roles in War Horse and Posh. Some actors are content to spend their careers playing much the same part – a variant on their own personality – and in Hollywood it’s virtually obligatory where the film is sold on the star name rather than character. The more chameleonic actor, who disappears entirely into their role every time, is considerably more interesting to me, and in the UK it’s often down to shrewd choices. So an actor who gets their big break on TV, like Tennant or Cumberbatch, can still do varied and brilliant work that takes their new fans with them.  And it seems that Harington may do the same – whether Jon Snow lives or dies we will soon know, but with an emotional role in Testament of Youth under his belt and now this grimy take on Faustus, his diversity will stand him in good stead.

You can always rely on Jamie Lloyd for innovation and while this modern day retelling may have some purists (and probably critics) huffing into their programme, it manages to mix the drama and potency of Marlowe’s original language with modern themes about the pursuit of celebrity that make for a discomforting yet compelling evening. Most radical is the decision to utilise Marlowe’s text for most of the first half and at the end of the second, while in between adding additional scenes by Colin Teevan to form a theatrical cut-and-shut. Unlike its vehicular equivalent however this really works and gives Faustus’s ‘glory years’ a surreal or dream-like quality that for him seem to flash past in an instant.

Utilising the necromancy skills he employs to conjure Lucifer and his hoard, Faustus becomes not just any celebrity but, after watching David Copperfield on TV, a star magician, wowing the world with his power to control all things and we get to see a few magic tricks and theatrical slight-of-hand as part of the fun – it’s all done with a graphic-novel-like silliness that only serves to make everything else more unpalatable. This is an inspired plot point that neatly marries Marlowe’s original tale with the company’s insinuation of a similarly soulless modern desire for fame at any price. It uses a reality-celebrity feel to give a new twist to traditional allusions, including at one point a naked Adam and Eve that seems to question both heaven and hell as aspirational concepts. In fact of the seven deadly sins (brilliantly enacted by Tom Edden) it is lust that frequently rears its head in this production as scantily clad characters occasionally grope and pleasure each other. But it’s always shabby and sordid showing how easily corrupted Faustus was for grubby earthly desires.

Lloyd achieves a dark contemporary feel extremely well and is made manifest in the (ever-brilliant) Soutra Gilmour set. As the audience take their seat Faustus sits staring brainlessly at the TV in a seedy-looking flat as modern devil-based pop classics blare out; everything is soiled and worn with age, a depressing motel-like set-up, making Faustus’s choice to sell his soul his only chance of escape from this disgusting drone-like existence, rather than just vanity. The sordidness of this deal is ever-present and as the set pulls apart to reveal a series of nasty theatre Green Rooms and hotels, that are a far cry from the glamour he craves, there may be colour, adulation and success but it all has a depressing tinge, a constant reminder of the price he’s yet to pay.

Harington is a conflicted Faustus and while he constantly doubts his decision, it is never suggested he is a good man led astray. On the contrary Harington’s Faustus has a dark heart which always overrides his conscience, driven by his want of public recognition and frequent lusts. It is only when he achieves it that he finds he’s made an empty bargain and seeks something pure and real with his assistant played by Jade Anouka (one of two roles perfectly recast as women). This performance is so interesting because it’s not a straight projection from nothing to everything; instead Harington makes him waver and at times even to skirt regret only to resurge into arrogance, feeling it all worthwhile. As the years pass too quickly those lows become more pronounced as his fame tails off with nothing to show for it and Harington is at his best in these later scenes as desperation gives way to resignation as he performs some dark and unforgiveable acts. As Lucifer finally appears to collect his due back in the old apartment, you’re left wondering if any of it was real. It is an absorbing and nuanced performance that will only grow more emotional as the run continues.

The role of Mephistopheles, Lucifer’s companion who is ‘lent’ to Faustus for his 24 year reign is being played by Jenna Russell who almost steals the show with a performance of comedic envy that is a joy to watch and constantly unsettling. Faustus primarily engages with two characters during his fame – Wagner and Mephistopheles – and by making them both women adds a much needed gender balance as well as emphasising the battle between them for his attention. Russell is a brutal guardian, pushing Faustus towards his dreams but serving as a constant reminder of Lucifer’s power, never allowing Faustus to enjoy himself too much in case he tries to break the pact. We’re even treated to a mini-concert including Better the Devil Your Know and Devil Woman after the interval which is a rousing opener to Act Two.

Forbes Mason is a brilliantly squalid Lucifer, who commands a pack of devils that silently surround Faustus at all times dressed in soiled underwear and t-shirts. They seem to spring from the dingy flat he lives in, reflecting as the set does that distasteful bargain with even Faustus himself wearing a dirty tracksuit for much of the show until even he succumbs to underwear as his destiny comes ever closer – one of the real successes of this production is how fully realised this grubbiness is and how it continues to haunt Faustus.

Jamie Lloyd’s direction is vibrant, and as previously seen with The Ruling Class and The Homecoming, teeters always on the edge of sinister and bizarre. The vision he creates on stage here is brash and unnerving, seamlessly integrating centuries old speeches and imagery with modern pop culture influences that make for a fascinating and thought-provoking night at the theatre. Lloyd’s theatre company has a mission to engage with first-time theatre goers and if the rows of teenage girls are anything to go by, Faustus has succeeded in attracting them. It may be the young star that has got them through the door but his performance and the Lloyd-Gilmour vision will show them that London theatre is as exciting as it’s ever been. And with Branagh promising a contemporary two-hour Romeo and Juliet in the theatre behind this one, it’s not just Game of Thrones fans who have lots to look forward to this April and May.

Faustus is at the Duke of Yorks Theatre until 25 June with tickets from £15. This season is part of the £15 Mondays scheme allowing you to purchase reduced price tickets for any Monday in that month available on on 3 May and 1 June.

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