Tag Archives: Tom Scutt

Marys Seacole – Donmar Warehouse

Marys Seacole - Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar’s last production dealt with the causes and consequences of male violence, the rhetoric and celebrated gung-ho spirit that takes men to war – legitimate or otherwise – charismatic leadership and the destruction of the male body. Henry V is a play filled with ambiguity, men die on the battlefield, they die in between, they are soldiers, they are civilians, they are noblemen and paupers, prisoners, spies and thieves. And Henry may walk away with another crown and a bargain princess with whom to start a dynasty, but someone has to pick up the pieces, to care for the wounded and dying when the King’s glory leaves them with shattered limbs, infections and survivor’s guilt. A biographical drama about Mary Seacole seems like a fitting follow-up.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s new play Marys Seacole is an entirely female affair, no male characters are present, implied or even speak, only the time-travelling idea of Mary, her ghostly mother, Mary’s daughter and another tri-generational white family that she helps in a twenty-first century hospital setting. And while Sibblies Drury creates an overarching structure in which the story of the original Mary is played out from her early days in Kingston to the conflict zone of Crimea, the deliberate ‘s’ to pluralise the protagonist takes a long lens perspective on the role of female carers across two centuries and the gendered biological structures that continue to constrain women.

But Marys Seacole is a tough watch, an abstract style and disjointed scenes make it difficult to invest in what are archetypes rather than characters performing in what often feels like a chaotic assemblage of disconnected activities. It opens with Mary introducing her story, emphasising her determination and success as a woman who escaped conventionality to establish her own business and defied military and nursing authorities by arriving close to the battlefield with her team. Across the 1 hour and 45-minute running time, these elements are dramatised and distributed through the show like a backbone, (largely) retaining their period drama aesthetic to complete her physical and character journey from her homeland to a wider acceptance abroad.

From this, Sibblies Drury hangs another more nebulous dramatic device, using snippets drawn from scenarios involving versions of Mary and her daughter in different contemporary times and places. First we see her providing palliative care to a disorientated elderly woman in what we assume is an NHS hospital or facility and being chastised by the woman’s middle-aged daughter and granddaughter. Later, she sits on a park bench in the USA where mothers with babies in prams stop momentarily, ignoring Mary while one conducts brash phone conversations with a pharmacist and friend, while another complains about her loneliness. In a final scenario, Mary is running a trauma drill for new nurses, trying to heard a group of actors into performing their various roles in the aftermath of a terrorist incident.

They are connected by the cast performing similar character types and by the themes of motherhood and caregiving. There are also dialogue links between these situations with particular phrases uttered in earlier scenes returning later as individuals demand care, compassion or understanding, building to a frenzy of experience as Mary’s time in the Crimea becomes somehow bound-up with all of the people she has met and been throughout the play. And as the walls of time give way, allowing these shadows to bleed into her era and pick through the rubble, they overwhelm her with their demands for help.

And through this, Sibblies Drury weaves a broken connection with Mary’s ghostly mother, a lurking, spiritual presence that is always so strong in Carribean identity, who silently moves through the action, perhaps a yardstick for Mary to test her achievements against or a reminder that however far she travels she remains a Kingston woman. A lengthy monologue from this maternal ghost in the final scene speaks to these ideas, something of the shame Mary felt or disconnection from a parent who sent her away to care for a local white woman, but simultaneously reminding our heroine and all the Marys like her that their nursing efforts are in vain. There are nods to the government’s Windrush generation deportation plans to insist they will never be truly accepted and certainly never thanked for their work in the current NHS or contribution to wider social development in the last 70-years.

Sibblies Drury is telling an individual and a universal story at the same time, and there are powerful statements interwoven here, but together the seeming randomness of these various scenarios puzzles more than they explain or converge. The ideas are clear and the performative structures Sibblies Drury employs to tease out these concepts are certainly arresting, yet their overall meaning feels hazy. They are not quite straightforwardly dramatic yet also not impressionistic or representative enough to be either personally or politically pointed. The result is a piece that feels quite consciously stagey, keeping the audience on the outside of the drama and the emotive concerns it tries to address.

It is possible to see the influence of Carly Churchill and Sarah Kane in Sibblies Drury’s play, the combination of abrupt, anti-realist settings, the compression of time and historical figures into a single space as well as the interest in gender roles, motherhood and even the anthological style link to these two powerhouse political writers. Yet Marys Seacole doesn’t find quite enough strength in its connections, the joins between the various situations not yet strong enough to either grab the audience or push them to a place of discomfort where new thinking is possible. Instead, it feels as though most of the pieces are there but they just don’t fit together.

In staging Marys Seacole, Nadia Latif implies a simple but clinical medical field tent in a drab scrubs-green that sits somewhere between khaki and mint. Designed by Tom Scutt, there are two layers to the stage, front and back, divided by a strip of curtain with large Velcro pockets that double as storage rooms and sanitation facilities. Props are minimal which allows the story to travel relatively easily though time but there is no particular purity about period setting so anachronistic clothing or items (such as a nineteenth-century woman in trainers) appear throughout, although whether that is a deliberate statement to reinforce the fluidity of eras or a practical shortcut for costume changes is unclear.

There is however a powerful use of costume early on as the Victorian Mary delivering her opening biographical monologue is disrobed piecemeal by her daughter, removing the restrictive bodice and full skirt to reveal a modern nurses uniform. As a piece of identity performance, it is a fascinating moment, smartly easing our way into the next scene while simultaneously giving the audience a visual reference point for the core themes of Marys Seacole, as the narrative moves through and applies across time. And one of the production’s biggest successes is the way in which Scutt has represented changes in practice, dress and the management of conflict medicine through the design choices and reveals.

A contemporary hospital bed becomes an important and ingenious symbol of the Marys caregiving status. Initially used in the family scene in its original form, the bed transforms into a flat table with bench seating for Mary’s Kingston hotel and, later, into a park bench for the American moms encounter. Yet, there is inconsistency in how props are changed or moved within the production, sometimes actors bringing on their own items in relevant costume while the bed is repositioned and reformed by very visible stage managers in jarring modern black outfits and headsets, a necessity perhaps but it further breaks the illusion of the play and, like the undecided degree of abstract in the piece itself, it’s not clear what effect Latif is aiming for. There isn’t quite enough of this alienation technique to feel deliberate and if it isn’t then it just makes it even harder to maintain the spell during scene changes.

The production builds to a final confrontational scene that also tries to be symbolic and realistic at the same time. Finally, at the culmination of Mary’s story, there is some comedy in the brusque exchanges with a seemingly heartless and condescendingly competitive Florence Nightingale, but the men they tend are obvious dummies scattered chaotically around the stage, their torsos dressed in military jackets, trailing crepe paper streamers suggesting intestinal and other matter. Into this interaction between real people comes the people and phrases from other eras, holding plastic baby dolls – absurdist theatre is nothing without plastic baby dolls – and rifling through the debris. Visually, it’s a solid representation of the kind of battlefield carnage that those like Henry V would have caused but it has none of the visceral impact of Max Webster’s previous production, despite using some of the same soil. What we get instead, as in other parts of Marys Seacole, is powerful stage pictures but little translation of their meaning.

The performances are very good with a small ensemble cast of just six performers led by Kayla Meikle as the Marys. She is commanding from the first, delivering a rousing insistence of her worth, certain of her agency and importance, refusing to listen to the objections of others and pursuing her own course. Meikle explores some of the consequences of that determination in the final scene, responding to the maternal ghost’s warning of incipient racism, disinterest and betrayal, allowing her characterisation to crumble as the demanding world claws at her.

Meikle is supported by Llewella Gideon as that spirit who also delivers an final intense speech with bitterness and resignation, making the most of her only chance to speak. Olivia Williams is best as a haughty Florence Nightingale but is also given a harassed mother and simpering tourist in Kingston while Deja J. Bowens, Esther Smith and Susan Woolridge complete the cast as a series of mother and daughter figures at different stages of life, in various times and countries. They do a lot with a small ensemble, changing scenes rapidly to keep this relatively short show moving quickly even if very little of it makes sense.

Like the award-winning Fairview before it (staged at the Young Vic), Marys Seacole will certainly divide audiences with its sprawling approach and indecisive tone. It is certainly interesting to see a new play that tries to place a historical figure in a broader context of caregiving and racial injustice, particularly one devised and presented by a predominantly female creative team. But although Sibblies Drury’s play has lots of things to say and some interesting ways to say them, it can’t quite decide what it wants to be, leaving the audience equally baffled.

Marys Seacole is at the Donmar Warehouse until 4 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Cabaret – Playhouse Theatre

Cabaret - Playhouse Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

We’ve all spent far too long sitting alone in our rooms so the cabaret is exactly where we need to be. What emerged as a delicious theatre rumour a few months ago has not only become a real production but a dream come true experience. Theatre closure was long and ruinous for many but Rebecca Frecknall’s Cabaret is our long-awaited reward. It may still be some time until press night but you may as well hand this company a truck load of Oliviers right not because this production is why theatre matters so much, staged at the newly refurbished Playhouse Theatre which welcomes audiences for the first time since March 2020 – you won’t want to go home.

The venue has undergone a remarkable transformation, taking a theatre with some of the poorest sight-lines, particularly from its steeply raked upper circle, to create a central in-the-round space that is far more visible, building on the original stalls to place cabaret tables around a small, circular stage. The effect is quite something and incredibly atmospheric, with the carpentry and creative team give it a Music Hall style design that feels historic, lived-in and cosily intimate.

There is no sawdust and paint aroma as you might expect and, with strategic use of drapes, a new box space has been added on either side of the original dress circle to house the musicians. This former proscenium-arch theatre has been completely opened-up which gives Frecknall the freedom to use the entire playing space for performance, underscoring the central thesis that characters exist beyond their Kit Kat Club persona, intermingling with and reflecting the very real people who have come to see them.

The experience begins from the moment you enter the theatre with the creation of a labyrinthine tour through the corridors normally out of bounds to the public but now dressed as basement bars with crinkly gold leaf and low lighting. Before finding your seat, catch a performance from members of the Kit Kat Club in a warm-up act danced on the foyer bar. Pause, marvel and enjoy as suggestively dressed artists create the mood, priming the audience for the main event.

It is a clever approach to immediate immersion that continues as you take your seat with music and dance performances carried through to all levels of the theatre – the fact that everyone looks a little worn, generating a middling enthusiasm is all part of the tone that Frecknall is creating, one that adds a seedy melancholy in which the show is so carefully poised. These are not so much creatures of pleasure determined to fulfil the fantasies of club members, but exhausted dancers struggling to summon the enthusiasm for yet more careless clients, the Underbelly artists perfectly capturing the mood of disdain.

There was always something about this production from the moment of its announcement to the atmospheric visual imagery adorning the posters. In offering a seedy glamour, this Cabaret was always going to be a bit special. And so it proves. We have come to expect a particular style from Frecknall’s work, a way of investigating text and character that finds the crucial emotional beats beneath the surface and gives her productions an almost musical rhythm where pace, tone and style rise and fall like dance or orchestration.

Applying her techniques to an actual musical brings a greater resonance to Cabaret exploring the ways in which songs and story create character insight and narrative development while re-examining the emotional shading in those elements to create a darker and less celebratory interpretation of a world ending and a brief sanctuary that can no longer withstand the political context assailing its walls.

Frecknall’s interpretation looks to works like Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Somerset Maughan’s Of Human Bondage in its exploration of the waring effect of poverty for both men and women in this era as the characters shuffle from club to boarding house. One particularly astute observation is how rapidly the sheen of glamour wears off, leaving behind a feeling of oppression that grows weightier as the story plays out, suggesting not only the growing political dangers around the characters as society begins to shift, but also the grinding effect of poverty from which individuals struggle to pick themselves up time after time.

In some of the productions more powerful moments, Frecknall elucidates an understanding of the fruitlessness of the characters’ dreams of escape, the hope – as Sally herself suggests – that this time it will be different, but knowing all the while that it never will. In staging this, there are tones of Bob, Jenny and Ella from Hamilton’s novel, creations whose hopes of distraction and escape are inflamed but eventually extinguished, leaving them, at best, the same, but often worse off then before, emotionally if not financially. What Frecknall does so well is to situate the lives of her characters in this broader context, and while we may only encounter them in Kander and Ebb’s songs and the few dramatic scenes between them, these people seem to exist beyond the confines of this night at the Kit Kat Club and even this musical.

In a show filled with some of the most beloved musical theatre numbers and an attachment to how these should be staged using Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography, Frecknall’s triumph is to set aside the performance history of Cabaret – much as Jamie Lloyd did with Evita – to reconsider the integration of music and dramatic scenes as a continuous emotional journey with both serving a clear and consistent vision for the show. Frecknall has made that balance especially compelling, giving equivalent emphasis to character interaction and development while repointing the usually exuberant and ‘big’ approach to staging the song and dance numbers, using them to reflect the changing mood of the club and the advancing political tide that will consume them all in the months and years to come.

The skill that choreographer Julia Cheng and set and costume designer Tom Scutt bring to the staging is to make that shift feel entirely organic, so that not only do we realise that we have been missing a trick all these years by not seeing the possibilities of this small, contained, narrative interpretation, but making it so beautiful and affecting, a grand inevitable tragedy, that operates simultaneously on a large and small scale.

As with Summer and Smoke, it is the emotional beats that Frecknall makes so devastatingly effective, injecting a kind of thrumming life blood into each character that amplifies their wants and needs beyond their role as a performer or neighbour. This is particularly notable in the relationship between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz whose shy flirtation in a reasonably bawdy household is at the heart of the show, tracking their late-blooming love and its consequences with a melting tenderness that will warm and eventually break your heart as circumstances conspire against them.

How this is reflected in Cabaret’s few character numbers (i.e. those not doubling as performances at the Kit Kat Club) is very skilful, capturing all the hope, loneliness and fear of the lovers in a consistent journey from spoken interaction to musical exposure of their soul, taking the audience with them entirely as both kinds of theatrical expression reflect and enhance each other, creating a completeness that is very moving.

And this production’s biggest coup is to do exactly the same thing with the Kit Kat Club songs, repositioning them as reflections of inner turmoil and a changing relationship with the nature of performance as their ‘real life’ offers and sometimes shuts-off avenues for development and personal changes that shape how songs are then performed. The greatest example of this is Sally’s version of the title number close to the end of Act Two, the once gloriously upbeat and defiant anthem in which the singer gives her all in the place she feels most at home, here becomes a sarcastic song of broken defeat in which Sally rails against the disappointments of her life, culminating in this cry of pain.

Performed by Jessie Buckley, it is an agonising, seductive and show-stopping moment that entirely captures the end of a trajectory for Sally that has taken her through confidence and self-satisfaction, hopes of a ‘normal’ life to a sad and painful disillusion that casts her lower than she was ever high. And this is not a singular moment but something Frecknall weaves throughout the show, allowing every song to bring that kind of insight and leaving the audience holding their breath in anticipation as every character’s depth and ache is felt through these songs from the saucy Don’t Tell Mama where Sally is on form but still a product of her circumstances, to the Emcee’s pointed interpretation of Money that so clearly emphasises the underlying melancholy of working class life with the long spectre of the First World War shaping Germany’s existence and a vision of the deaths to come, to the bitter chill of Tomorrow Belongs to Me as exuberant individuality is slowly sacrificed to a besuited uniformity – something which creeps across the show, chasing away the light as fascism descends.

This reinterpretation casts a more incisive perspective on Sally’s character, breaking away somewhat from Liza Minnelli’s more buoyant approach, taking life’s knocks on the chin, and in Buckley’s performance charting the slow erosion of Sally as each new encounter and every song chips more and more from her ability to endure. Yet Buckley still makes Sally charming, grubbily alluring in her musical performances and pragmatic, a different kind of woman, able to withstand any fresh circumstances and turn them successfully to her advantage.

Yet beneath the surface, Buckley carries a deep well of soulful agony, a desire for more that makes the elusive Sally a desperate dreamer both craving a new, more certain life with the promise of something to love, but so afraid of the reality that she becomes a self-destructive force. It is a beautiful performance, fragile and strong at the same time, and filled with such pathos for Sally and the endless cycles of her life that burrow deep into your consciousness and emotional responses.

Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee does something similar, playing against type in a role that demands a showmanship and transformational physicality that shapes and directs the narrative. It couldn’t be further from his work for film and big franchise, and like Buckley, this may be the greatest performance of Redmayne’s career, presenting that visually dazzling outward face of the club while internalising all of Frecknall’s themes about the toll of long-term poverty and public performance in a dangerous unstable political climate.

Redmayne’s Emcee is a deliberate oddity, with a hunched-over flexibility that allows him to stalk the stage, creating not just an androgynous feel but also the impression of a creative quite distinct from everyone around him. Always dressed in careful but elaborate style including clowns, sailor suits, skeletal soldiers and slick businessmen – and particular kudos to Scutt for his impeccable contribution to character creation – Redmayne’s capacity for metamorphosis is extraordinary while visually and vocally guiding the audience through the sensitively changing tones of this story.

There is superb support from Omari Douglas as the American writer wanting to be corrupted, Stewart Clarke as the personable Nazi supporter whose influence affects the sweet affair between Elliot Levy’s Herr Schultz and Liza Sadovy’s Fraulein Schneider, while the very small company of Kit Kat Club dancers Theo Maddix, Daniel Perry, Andre Refig, Christopher Tenda, Bethany Terry, Lillie-Pearl Wildman and Sophie Maria Wojna bring each number to life, roaming around the revolving and multi-level stage with a slinky but stained glamour.

Frecknall’s Cabaret is truly astounding, a show that will take your breath away from the second it begins and leave you thinking about it for weeks afterwards. The veil of interwar social melancholy is wonderfully pitched, leaving you wondering what Frecknall might make of After the Dance as a future project. The major tragedy here is that so few people will get to see it with prohibitively expensive ticket prices. Cabaret should be seen, it is a true advert for the beguiling, life changing power of theatre that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice a week’s salary for. It is profoundly moving and entirely consuming, it repositions a show we know too well and finds all kinds of new depths, meanings and resonances so our relationship to it will never be quite the same again. As well as accessible tickets deals, let’s make this work of art available affordably online and in cinemas, book the NT Live cameras now because everyone should have the chance to be transfigured by it.

Cabaret is at the Playhouse Theatre until 14 May 2022 although cast changes are likely from February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

‘To Be or Not to Be’ – Contemplations of Mortality in The Deep Blue Sea

Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea (by Richard Hubert Smith)

As the National Theatre streams its wonderful 2016 production of Terrance Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea it is timely to consider what a significant role Hester Collyer is for an actor. In a play framed by the protagonist’s suicide attempts and steeped in the consequences of the Second World War for the surrounding characters, what on one level is a story of soured forbidden love is in essence a discussion of life and death. While it would be excessive to suggest that the role of Hester is equivalent to Shakespeare’s most famous grief-stricken character, there are, nonetheless, overlapping themes with Hamlet that are worth exploring.

For a long time, the wider power of Rattigan’s play was dismissed or at best reduced to a thinly veiled dramatisation of the suicide of his former lover Kenneth Morgan, while it’s central character was considered to be little more than a hysterical woman. And while Rattigan naturally drew on his real experience, The Deep Blue Sea is far more sophisticated than a mere pastiche, bringing an empathetic understanding not just of the liberating and overwhelming emotions that the once sheltered Hester feels for Freddie but of the extremely limited opportunities for women of her class in the early 1950s which seek to further confine her.

While the play is about the destructive nature of passionate infatuation, the shadow of death fills every corner of it. Death haunts this play as surely as it does Hamlet until almost the last moment when 24-hours in Hester’s life comes to its ultimate conclusion. Everywhere she turns the effects of her suicide attempt which opens the play confront her – in meetings with her former husband, with her lover Freddie and with the army of concerned neighbours who pass through the flat to check on her throughout this period – while the long postponed conversations about her deteriorating relationship presage another form of death to come, the nature of which she must choose as the play unfolds.

Hester, like Hamlet, must grapple with circumstances she now feels are beyond her control, that in the space of a few months her everyday life has so altered that continuing it becomes unbearable. As Hamlet faces his father’s death and the too rapid progress of his mother’s second marriage – a change he cannot reconcile – Hester, at the start of The Deep Blue Sea also confronts her demons with a first botched suicide attempt. The new world that both must enter at the start of the play is a merciless one, something has been lost that neither can recover although their striving to do so drives the drama and lends an inevitability to the sense of tragedy. Freddie forgetting her birthday seems trivial but it becomes the trigger for Hester to reconsider her choices before the play begins, symbolising the unsuitability of her relationship and forcing her to recognise that their time together is coming to an end, believing she cannot live without him.

Hamlet’s relationship with his father and Hester’s with Freddie are the most important of their lives and losing them quite suddenly gives both a sense of purposelessness. Hester’s suicide note so callously read aloud by Freddie to his friends (and thereby the audience) is the equivalent of her soliloquy in which she expands on her feelings for him and reasons for taking her own life. That Freddie mocks it says much about his inability to process emotion – something he all but acknowledges – yet it does not detract from an act that in the context of both plays was seen as unchristian and illegal. That Hamlet and Hester consider such drastic action to end their suffering regardless of the consequences for their reputation and presumably for their souls reveals a great deal about the importance of these key relationships in sustaining their sense of self and giving their life purpose.

In other ways, Hamlet and The Deep Blue Sea create a sense of powerlessness in their protagonist through the subtle rendering of the wider setting in which the action takes place. Hamlet is an unthroned prince, an heir apparent whose hereditary right has seemingly been usurped by the one man he finds it hard to challenge. Why and how this happened remains one of the play’s great mysteries but it leaves Hamlet adrift with neither armies, allies or even the moral courage to fight his enemy. These circumstances and the apparent acceptance of the Danish people for King Claudius leave Hamlet powerless to take control of his own life, a spare prince with no meaningful role.

Likewise, Hester’s experience in the play’s 1952 setting is entirely defined by her gender, a woman separated from her respectable husband, living in sin with her younger lover in rented rooms and with little legal or social recourse to protect her interests. As the daughter of a clergyman Hester (unlike the other women in the play) has no experience of work, hoping to make a precarious living as a painter when Freddie leaves, and her class betrayal has left her without friends to rely on in her time of need.

Hester’s status as a soon-to-be-divorced middle-aged woman with a modest income makes her potential future in these circumstances rather bleak but she is all but powerless to change it. Ultimately, all Hamlet and Hester have to claim as their own is life itself; both must examine whether life for its own sake is worth having and how the pain of it can be borne.

Besides the suicidal impulses of the central characters these very different plays also share secondary themes, considering the nature and effects of betrayal, a sense of observation or of being spied upon, and a destructive experience of rejection. Like Hamlet, Hester is frequently betrayed by the characters around her, and before she appears, Mrs Elton (Marion Bailey) has already broken her confidence, revealing her real name and situation to the Welches in an attempt to help in the panicked aftermath of her suicide attempt, but delivered with the gossipy fervour of a secret surreptitiously shared.

Soon, Mrs Welch (Yolander Kettle) is keen to read her suicide note, stopped only by her better-behaved husband (Hubert Burton), while Sir William Collyer (Peter Sullivan) returns on the pretext of concern but really with the intention of reclaiming the wife he needs for society parties and status – a betrayal of Hester’s own emotional position. Freddie, of course, betrays her most notably, acknowledging early-on his inability to love with the expressive intensity that Hester experiences. This mocks the ten month relationship for which she has sacrificed everything from marriage and comfort to dignity and ease of heart. That Hester is watched, managed and listened to as completely as Hamlet is pointed, as external circumstances affect and shape the growing desperation of their inner lives.

But death exists inescapably for other characters in The Deep Blue Sea as well, and Freddie in particularly is deeply affected even haunted by his experience as a pilot in the Second World War. His life “stopped in 1940” Hester explains and this National Theatre at Home screening of the play premiered on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain which began on 10 July 1940. Freddie is far more than a callous brute and, clearly traumatised by his experience, loses his nerve as a test pilot bringing the couple back from Canada to deal with the restrictions of 1950s Britain.

To have faced death so openly each day and in a way none of the other characters can claim to, Freddie’s inability to feel anything as intensely in the subsequent years is understandable and pitiable. His anger at Hester’s seemingly casual approach to death as an escape from her overwhelming emotions rather than a state to be feared and respected in the light of the sacrifices of others is essential to comprehending his reactions to her throughout the play. And perhaps more than Hester herself Freddie is a character who lives with and understands death completely, knowing – as good Mr Miller (Nick Fletcher) advises – that the only thing to do is get up the next day and go on living.

And death lingers elsewhere in this play as we presume that Mr Elton, the landlady’s husband, lays slowly dying in another room unable to recover from some unexplained illness. Mr Miller, too, we learn has lost his medical licence to practice for which several potential reasons arise. It may have been the result of some misdemeanor for which he has served time in prison, if not sexual misconduct then presumably his crime resulted in the death of a patient or he could be a refugee from Europe, displaced by the Holocaust, an experience of death far more significant that a single suicide attempt in a drab London flat. Even Sir William presides over life and death as a judge who, in 1952, would still have had the power to sentence a guilty man to capital punishment. The life he offers Hester also brings with it a metaphorical death, suffocating her with social duties, keeping up appearances and dull rounds of obligation, but the Judge represents a physical experience of death as readily as the other characters around Hester, each in their way creating a context in which mortality decisions are a regular feature of their lives.

Helen McCrory and Tom Burke rightly received wide acclaim for their interpretations of Hester and Freddie, but the write-ups of Carrie Cracknell’s intensely atmospheric production focused almost exclusively on the love story and the deeply-felt expression of emotion. But Rattigan’s play is also about determining whether life is worth having, and how to make it bearable day-to-day. Cracknell and designer Tom Scutt have clearly understood this too and use the semi-transparent walls to show all the different experiences of the building’s inhabitants, a range of people and modes of living on show, each one of them wondering every day if it is worth going on.

McCrory’s Hester is almost somnabulistic, gliding through the play as though she no longer exists, making the audience ever aware that she will try again and again – the finality of her confrontation with Freddie merely expedites something she has already chosen, the pain of her existence exploding before us. The ebullience of Burke’s Freddie conceals acres of experience, his placidity and detachment aggrevating to Hester because he can never be provoked to feel for her as much as he once did for the comrades he lost.

“We’re death to each other you and I” he tells her and Rattigan’s glorious play makes you believe it. Death haunts every corner of The Deep Blue Sea not just as the tragic representation of the writer’s own experience of loss but in the evocation of mid-century lives so meaningfully understood, created and rendered. This group of lost souls, existing between two different states, not dead but not fully alive are ordinary and tragic, and in them Hester finds unexpected salvation as Rattigan chooses to dash our expectations. Like Shakespeare’s greatest play, The Deep Blue Sea is grief channelled into art, aligning Hamlet and Hester as two souls enveloped by death and choosing whether to live.

The Deep Blue Sea is streaming via National Theatre at Home until 16 July. 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   

Julie – National Theatre

Julie - National Theatre

In the last 5 years some of the National Theatre most memorable productions have centred on the experience of woman who feel powerless or constrained. Carrie Cracknell’s fearsome 2014 version of Medea with Helen McCrory felt like the beginning of a shift towards a greater understanding of literature’s most complex heroines, shackled to a smothering social order they have nothing to do with creating. In 2016, Cracknell and McCrory returned with a sublime adaption of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea which retained its post-war setting but in Tom Scutt’s fresh design brought a raw emotional intensity to the story. The same can be said of Ruth Wilson’s Hedda Gabler which opened later that year in which Ivo van Hove’s modern setting brought a clarity to Ibsen that allowed Wilson to shine.

These examples made it look easy but reimagining a classic isn’t necessarily straightforward. While it may seem that all a Company should do is decide whether to move the action to the modern day and if the original text needs to be updated, then put it in a funky, preferably spacious set and let the plaudits flow in, it is a lot more complicated than that. They also need to really understand, and most importantly to convey, the psychology of the characters. If you’re removing cluttered sets and archaic language, then the stage has to be filled with something else, the inner lives of the characters writ large, painful and inescapable, taking the audience on the dark path the protagonist embarks on.

In the National’s new production of Miss Julie based on Strindberg’s 1889 tragedy about class and aimless despair, writer Polly Stenham has made her choices; as well as dropping Miss from the title, the action is relocated from nineteenth-century Sweden to a house party in 2018 Hampstead. Stenham too has placed Stindberg aside and written the text herself using the key plot points to shape a more up-to-date interpretation, sidestepping the coyness of Strindberg’s original for open discussion of sex, money and drug-taking.

As maid Kristina and chauffeur Jean tidy the kitchen, a birthday party rages in the room upstairs. It’s the early hours of the morning, people are dancing wildly, filling the house with beat, and sweat and noise, but birthday girl Julie feels lost, abandoned, alone. Recently dumped by her fiancé and with no sign of her father, Julie throws herself wildly into the party, finding it increasingly difficult to paper over the cracks, or pretend she’s having a good time. Wandering into the kitchen she falls into conversation with Jean, and as a heat grows between them they become reckless. Knowing they cannot be together, the pair toy with each other until a crisis is reached. In the aftermath, both must decide what their future holds.

Julie is at heart an examination of how easy betrayal can be. In various guises, characters are disloyal to one another breaking conventions for one small moment of satisfaction that ultimately seems insignificant against the tribulations it unleashes. Julie is a destructive and a self-destructive presence, which acts like a contagion during the play, dragging others into her sphere of misery. With surprisingly little goading, Jean dismissively betrays the warm and easy relationship he has with fiancée Kristina. At the same time Julie, claiming to adore Kristina betrays their years of friendship by pursuing something she doesn’t particularly need just for the pleasure of being wanted for a moment. The consequences of this double attack on Kristina suggest only misery and regret will follow.

But both the central characters also end up betraying themselves with reckless action outside of their usual character that backs them into a corner. Despite Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) claiming he once held an unrequited love for Julie, impossible to act upon given his role as a servant, you sense that he’s not the person he becomes on this one night. While remote and arguably underwritten in Stenham’s adaptation, he’s not someone we come to know particularly well, but there is a sense of moral decency that runs through him, of not wanting to cross the line, of responsibility and of sober restraint. And it is Julie who pushes him to betray his own character, to act beyond his usual limits for which he feels ashamed.

As the star of the show Vanessa Kirby’s Julie is more complex, described early-on by Kristina as a character in “technicolour”, she is full of contradictions, loves partying, claims to be gregarious but it’s all a front to hide her overwhelming lack of purpose. Clearly still grieving from the suicide of her mother an unspecified number of years before and reeling from the end of her relationship, Kirby’s Julie seems brittle but has moments of bravado, even shocking selfishness and cruelty that make her difficult to like – including a League of Gentlemen-inspired moment with a budgie. In confrontations with Jean he accuses her of being rich, entitled, spoiled and with the luxury of time, allowing her to be self-indulgent in her misery because she has nothing else to do – it’s hard to disagree.

But Kirby has played enough of these types of women on stage and screen to bring out the underlying complexity in Julie’s situation. She may be all of the things Jean says, but she knows it and that is the key to her disillusion with the world and her inability to claw her way out of the box she has created for herself. Being the good-time-girl is all she knows how to do, not because she wants to, but because its like putting on armour for her, a way to face each day without succumbing to the desperation that her encounter with Jean finally unplugs. These are the wonderful female performances that Director Carrie Cracknell so often elicits, and Kirby illuminates the stage, even left alone and unspeaking at the end, she fills the room with a strange intensity, she’s pushed Julie almost to the point where the audience can barely sympathise with her, yet she remains compelling.

Kirby’s performance is the high point in show that elsewhere has some problems to solve before Thursday’s press night. At only 85-minutes and after a raucous start, there are passages where the energy noticeably dips. So much of the action takes place in duologue between Julie and Jean, and despite a lovely moment when they first assess each other from opposite ends of the sizeable Lyttelton stage with such a charge that they could be face-to-face, with so little of Jean’s character elucidated and with a more watered-down class divide, their interactions too frequently feel as though there’s little at stake when the opposite should be true.

Aspects of Stenham’s modern setting are well realised by Cracknell and her team, the raging house party that dominates the raised area at the back of the stage makes for an energetic beginning, a context for the action to come and lasting a surprisingly long time before anyone speaks. Tom Scutt’s clinical kitchen set and intimidating concrete table is at once the image of modish luxury, a desire for chic and expensive homes devoid of personality, but as a sliding wall blocks out the dwindling party the tone changes, with Scutt’s work, lit by Guy Hoare, increasingly resembling a windowless prison, reiterating Julie’s concern with the bubble and trap of privilege.

Yet there is a nagging thought all the way through that the whole production feels like a pretence, ironically mirroring that same idea the characters have of themselves. With so many successful modern adaptations of classic work, why update Strindberg’s text at all? Surely there is plenty of scope for producing a modern version of the original work that doesn’t require a full rewrite. The production wants to feel edgy but peppering the text with references to sex and drugs is no replacement for the uneven tension between Jean and Julie. The nature of the class system has so changed that a liaison between the boss’s daughter and the chauffeur isn’t the scandal it once would have been, while any intended inter-racial subtext is entirely diluted and all-but irrelevant. Other than Jean already being in a relationship, it’s hard to see why the consequences of their liaison should be so mutually destructive.

To make this work, the audience needs to know much more about the other characters and in particular why Jean would suddenly risk everything. Julie says he doesn’t give much away, but for the viewer it makes it difficult to understand and appreciate his motivation, or to invest in the personal fall-out. Arguably, with the weakening of the master-servant relationship in modern Britain there were other ways to recast Jean’s position that would have better explained the hold Julie’s father would have over him, deference doesn’t quite ring true, whereas a monetary / business connection could be more viable, making him a rising star in her father’s firm with plenty to lose. Similarly, Thalissa Teixeira rings every ounce of nuance from the role of Kristina, a kind friend and loyal girlfriend. Teixeira delivers a superb final shame-inducing speech which bursts Jean and Julie’s bubble, but if you’re modernising the play why not give her more to do than wander on silently to clean in the downtime between interactions. The history of Kristina’s protective, almost motherly, support for Julie could be better explored in the text which needs to offer a more complete understanding of the scale of the betrayals that occur, and a greater insight into Julie’s family life to ratchet up the tension in the aftermath of the party.

Re-imagining a classic is then not as easy as it sounds, and while there is lots to like in Cracknell’s production that pushes Kirby’s multifaceted performance to the front, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed in part. There is a balance to be found in rewriting a well-known play – as those like Patrick Marber can attest with successful adaptations of Three Days in the Country and Don Juan in Soho –  one that honours the original while making changes that are more suited to the modern setting. While Stenham retains plenty of Strindberg’s purpose, Julie doesn’t go quite far enough in remoulding the political and psychological shape of its characters for the twenty-first century. Imaginative it certainly is and well performed, but like a later sequel to a classic novel it bears the marks of slightly unsatisfactory imitation. May as well have just adapted Strindberg.

Julie is at the National Theatre until 08 September and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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