Tag Archives: Tom Scutt

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   

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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


Summer and Smoke – Almeida Theatre

Summer and Smoke, Almeida Theatre

This time last year, the Almeida was in the middle of a purple patch, one that would produce a successive run of West End transfers with Mary Stuart, Hamlet and Ink all quickly secured hugely successful extensions. Now, their new production of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams once again reminds larger theatres of the power of this small Islington venue; it’s ability not just to attract emerging talent among a pool of actors, writers and directors, but also to reimagine classic plays as fresh and invigorating stories for modern audiences.

Unlike last year’s Young Vic production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Benedict Andrews, which proved to be a “cold seduction” where nudity became a rather insubstantial substitute for chemistry, the Almeida’s interpretation of Summer and Smoke creates an astonishing balance of emotional fragility and electrifying sensual charge. Williams’s work is largely associated with these ideas of repressed or frustrated sexuality that struggles to break free during the course of the play, but he also writes sensitively about the tender pain of impossible love and the often stark self-realisations that follow.

Summer and Smoke is the rather wistful story of young lovers separated by their physical and spiritual concept of relationships. Neighbours since childhood, the anxious Alma becomes drawn to newly qualified doctor John, and in doing so goes against the rules of life, conduct and decency that she aims to live by. Demanding a connection of souls, the young medic’s concentration on the body repels and attracts her in equal measure, never able to fully commit herself. But, as his louche lifestyle takes him into the arms of another woman, the pair find their views begin to change and a decisive moment offers one last chance to breach the divide.

One of the key things you notice in this mesmerising production, skilfully directed by Rebecca Frecknall, is how like D.H. Lawrence it is, and how Williams uses Lawrencian themes to quietly devastating effect on both his characters and his audience. One of the key characteristics of Lawrence’s major novels is the tacit push and pull between two potential lovers, as their ability to form a loving relationship rests not in the external activities and plot devices that surround them, but in the silent and inexplicable moments of ease and discord that spring up wordlessly between them.

In Sons and Lovers, Miriam finds herself at odds with protagonist Paul where a feeling of distance and disagreement seems to exist when they are alone even though they appear destined, or at least they expect, to be together. And it is this inability to reconcile the peace between their souls that sets them on an entirely different course than the one they imagined. This is exactly the tone that Frecknall creates in Summer and Smoke, of two lonely souls craving each other but unable to find a rhythm despite the fervent desire of their bodies and minds.

And loneliness tears through Frecknall’s charged interpretation, manifesting itself in many different ways, as two quite opposite personalities seek solace outside the self. Like Lawrence, Williams is writing about young people at a precipice, where the next choice will define the rest of their life and making the wrong one (or having it made for them) will forever extinguish some kind of flame within them. Desperation reeks through the Almeida’s show, as the moving story of Alma and John becomes a fight for life in which they must find a perfect union or are lost forever not only to each other, but also to themselves.

Cannily staged by Tom Scutt with a circle of pianos played by a small supporting cast in multiple roles, Mark Dickman uses music to infuse the production, perfectly underscoring whole scenes and individual moments with an emotionally-driven score and, even more crucially, wells of silence that engulf the principals’ and audience hearts. Lee Curran’s lighting supports the creation of mood and location which, in a minimal setting, brings out the sunlit heat of the Mississippi town by day and the sultry shadows of night, perfectly reflecting the physical and emotional state of the leads. Scutt and Curran underscore, Williams’s fragmented story as Alma and John’s experience drifts like smoke into view before floating away, fragile and light.

But Frecknall weaves this into a hugely impactful experience, building the tension between the characters in Act One, loading their interactions with greater passion and investment, before allowing Act Two to dissolve around them, emphasising the growing distance and impossibility of their relationship. Deftly directed, Frecknall allows Williams’s story to fill your heart only to break it.

Still early in her career, Patsy Ferran has gathered quite the portfolio of impressive performances in what is still a relatively short CV. With notable roles in Speech and Debate as well as My Mum’s a Tw*t in the last year alone, Ferran is fast becoming one of the most interesting actors on the London stage. She has a particular gift for presenting the perspective of the outsider, showing the human fears and pain that sit beneath the surface, so she’s perfectly cast as the gentle but nervy singing teacher Alma whose struggles eventually consume body and soul.

Told predominantly from the perspective of restrained Minister’s daughter Alma, Ferran’s performance is full of beautifully judged small gestures which build to form a picture of a young woman emerging from emotional seclusion into a world of feeling. The tragedy lies in the timing. Having chastely loved the boy next door for years, Ferran shows how physical sensation starts to blossom in Alma as she shares a succession of increasingly intimate moments with John. You feel the rippling effect as he lightly takes her pulse for the first time, the virtually scandalous intrusion of a stethoscope to listen to her heart and Ferran makes each act a tug of war between shame and desire, fearing the unexpected flutter of yearning John’s proximity creates while desperately craving it.

As the story unfolds, Alma blooms and her initial awkwardness around him where she’s all heavy limbs and nervous laughter, evolves into a visible determination to be near him, to overcome her reticence and lean into him. In lesser hands, Alma could be frustrating, gawkish and even irritating but it’s so gently done that Ferran holds you in thrall with a performance that subtly merges hope with an inevitable sadness.

John is no less interesting, and while his story is not the central focus of Williams’s play, Matthew Needham builds an equally tragic story of jaded disappointment. John, like Alma, is trapped in a predetermined role, forced into becoming a doctor by his difficult father Dr Buchanan. So, John rebels and Needham brings a sad desperation to his attempts to find solace in the seedy local entertainments. He may womanise, drink and gamble but it’s clear that none of it makes him happy, so every aspect of his life, even the defiant acts against respectability, seem to chip away at his sense of self, drawing him unstoppably towards an unremarkable future.

His physicality is palpable throughout the story and Needham shows John visibly waking-up when he’s with Alma, responding to her presence and feeling drawn to some essential purity in her. As that becomes increasingly complex, Needham charts John’s retreat extremely effectively, so as the tables turn between them and he gives up the fight, watching him succumb to the life he never wanted is very moving. Ferran and Needham have an incredible chemistry, these are two characters that don’t just love but actually infect each other with devastating effect on who they become.

The surrounding cast create a whole town’s worth of people and with some clever doubling of roles get to play opposing interpretations of similar characters. Forbes Masson is both Alma and John’s fathers, the kindly Reverend Winemiller who fears for his daughter’s moral safety and the dastardly Dr Buchanan whose strict rules and uncompromising character drive his son to rebellion. Anjana Vasan plays both the sexy Mexican girl Rosa who John becomes involved with at the same time as Alma, while also performing as the innocent Nellie who makes a play for him in the Second Act – having both roles played by the same actor indicating something about John’s view on the generic face of women who are not Alma.

Much of the play’s humour is centred in the more liberated character of Mrs Winemiller, Alma’s mother who had a breakdown before the start of the story. Nancy Crane brings a sense of uncaring freedom to the role, defying social convention to make jokes at her daughter’s expense, behave childishly and not care. It’s a fascinating contrast not just with the buttoned-up Alma, but also with the more conventionally rebellious John, who doesn’t find a tenth of the happiness that the genuinely free Mrs Winemiller obtains.

Summer and Smoke is a glorious adaptation of one of Tennessee Williams’s lesser known works, and like Peter Gill’s The York Realist entering its final weeks at the Donmar Warehouse, the business of the play is handled with such subtly that it allows the deep emotional connection at the heart of the story to flourish. With a magnetic central pairing, Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke is unmissably beautiful, and the Almeida at its finest.

Summer and Smoke is at the Almeida Theatre until 7 April. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Belleville – Donmar Warehouse

Belleville - Donmar Warehouse

In a year of great new writing, the less perfectly constructed plays somehow seem more obvious. From the Norwegian-managed peace talks between Israel and Palestine, to rural Ireland in the early 1980s, to the birth of a powerful tabloid on Fleet Street in 1969, this year’s best new work may have been geographically and topically diverse, but they have been carefully constructed with strong characterisation and skewering political messages. But, because this is an exceptional year, imperfections seem more glaring, plays that haven’t quite found their rhythm are more obvious, and Amy Herzog’s new play Belleville, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse, relies on excellent central performances to cover its dramatic weaknesses.

Set in contemporary Paris, a seemingly perfect young American couple rent a flat from their Senegalese neighbours. But Abby is an actress and yoga teacher who lives in a permanent state of high nervous excitement that makes her stay in Paris far more of a trial than she is prepared to concede. Abby idolises husband Zack who works as a doctor for an international aid organisation and speaks eloquent French, but coming home early one-day Abby finds Zack not working. The perfect exterior begins to crack, and some surprising truths emerge; why are they really in Paris, how well does Zack really know the neighbours, and why can’t they leave for Christmas?

Herzog does well to create a set of characters and a scenario that, initially at least, the audience can invest in. The first two scenes are a portrait of Abby and Zack’s marriage which are both engagingly written and subtly revealing; there is an interesting flow to the interaction between the characters that feels like natural conversation and gives a sense of the companionship and frustration of living with a long-term partner. In minutes, their conversation moves smoothly from general catch-up on their day, to affectionate intimacies, to fairly amiable bickering and back again, in what feels like a detailed anatomy of marriage.

And, at the same time, the audience is given a glimpse of the difficulties of their partnership when Zack speaks openly to landlord Alioune early in the play about the intensity of Abby’s moods and how waring it is to be with someone refusing to take their anti-depressants. Herzog is constantly asking us not to take the characters at face value but to see them through the eyes of their partner, so we see Zack’s strength and Abby’s weakness based on conversations when the other isn’t around, and it is only later in the story that the audience is forced to re-evaluate those judgements.

There are also some intriguing themes and questions which are solidly established in Herzog’s writing, and, alongside the dissection of marriage, there is early implication that Belleville will also take-in father-daughter relationships, the long-term impact of grief, how well we really know the people we’re closest too, the strain of living far from home and, to some extent, the failure of the American dream. It’s a huge amount to pack into a 100-minute show, and the play’s inability to deliver on its early promise, satisfactorily managing the issues and character insights it raises, means too many aspects of the story are left unresolved.

Instead, as the plot unfolds across the next few scenes, Belleville feels rather half-hearted and unable to successfully marry the plot and the themes together, almost as though the ideas have become too big for the story and, having thrown everything into those early scenes, finding a way to bring all the strands back together has been rather elusive. In particular, aspects of the characterisation should have been seeded much earlier to make the sudden and almost melodramatic switch at the end seem more likely. Similarly, Abby’s reliance on calls to her father and the reasons the couple left the USA have considerable dramatic potential, going to the root of her relationship with Zack, and should be better used to tease out the idea that their relationship has been one long deception.

Herzog is trying to show a snapshot moment in their lives, one that turns-out to be crucial, but for the ending to feel meaningful and credible, these earlier questions about who they are and why they are in this situation also need to be more fully answered. It’s not enough for a character to have an eleventh-hour about-turn, this must be carefully woven into the play from the start and make psychological sense. There are some great moments of tension, but too much time is wasted on empty stages and superfluous detail that doesn’t make this short show as slick and tense as it really should be – particularly a wasteful final scene which is just 5 minutes of stage-tidying that has virtually no relevance to the plot, before fading out.

In Belleville, these hints are too small to make the outcome believable and, in their final scene both Zack and Abby suddenly act in ways that are unlikely based on their earlier behaviour. For that to work, these aspects of their character, or at least the conditions that create that possibility have to be built-in, otherwise it just feels like a hasty and appended conclusion.  Like Against at the The Almeida in August, Belleville would benefit from another 6 months of preparation to address the play’s inconsistencies, and perhaps moving it to the end of the Donmar’s Winter / Spring season would have allowed more time to decide the nature of the piece – is it a domestic drama or a something darker – and utilise the detail of those first two scenes to better effect.

With press night this week, however, what makes this a worthwhile are the two central performances from James Norton and Imogen Poots who bring credibility to their characters and help to disguise some of the weakness of the material. Actors, of course, do far more than read the words their given, with this show being a case in point, and in large part, the audience investment created at the start of the show, comes from their ability to breathe life into Abby and Zack, encouraging your interest in what happens to them.

Poots in particular is excellent as the neurotic and talkative Abby, and from the first moment she appears chatting veraciously to Alioune, thoughts skipping from one to the next, you get a clear picture of a warm and friendly young woman, eager to please but unable to control her impulses. There are undercurrents of obsession and paranoia that Poots picks out quite carefully, subtle at first but amplified as the story unfolds. And while Abby’s actions are less credulous in the second half of the play, Poots has created a real and conflicted person.

Early on, we learn Abby is almost constantly connected to her father, receiving calls from him several times a day, and Poots shows a woman willingly, but not happily, distanced from her family, concerned for them and homesick, but wanting to support her brilliant husband. Slowly she introduces the idea that life is not as perfect as she wants to believe, struggling with the language and intimidated to go out alone – the flat is largely her entire experience of living in France, and it’s a shame the writing squanders the opportunity to explore these ideas in more depth. Building on her acclaimed work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf earlier in the year, Poots manages to make Abby sympathetic, with an inner reserve, while making it clear that being around her would be exhausting.

Zack by contrast has an easy confidence and sense of being the “grown-up” in the relationship. Norton exactly grasps Zack’s slightly controlling nature and, while the surface may be calm and charming, their lifestyle is driven by his needs. The unsavoury aspects of Zack’s character are frequently pitted against his perfect image as the child-saving doctor, but Norton is able to veer between the two while revealing a man equally unhappy and insecure in the life they have built.

From the start as Abby catches him watching porn, Norton’s Zack struggles to maintain the fiction he presents to his wife, and the various ways in which he deflects her attention from the truth are rapidly discovered by the audience. The frequent drug-taking mirrors Abby’s dependence on her father’s calls, and in these moments Norton reveals Zack’s anxiety, becoming increasingly boxed-in by his own desperation. More of this needs to be supported by the script however, and too often the reasons for Zack’s responses are glossed over or not fully explained, and while Norton does the best he can with the general placidity of the character, he has considerably less depth to work with than Poots. He needs to be either more hapless or more deliberately sinister, and without the proper backstory it’s difficult to understand why he ends as he does.

The role of the neighbours, played by Malachi Kirby as Alioune and Faith Alaby as wife Amina, is potentially interesting but underpowered. While there is clearly a more ominous connection between Alioune and Zack, it never becomes clear what that is. And although well performed by both – Alaby entirely in French – they could be better used as a counterpoint to the ‘perfection’ of the central couple, and arguably, with a young family, two properties, a business, and also living away from their cultural origins, are the more successful pairing, a point that could be better emphasised.

Belleville does have a lot of potential, but it hasn’t yet been fully developed. Tom Scutt’s set evokes European-style apartment living, but the Parisian location could more completely draw out the discomfort of strangers in a strange land – frankly they could be anywhere. Michael Longhurst’s direction is swift if not always as deft as it could be, and despite some strong moments between the two leads, tension tends to dissipate rather than build in the interim. With a bit of revision, Belleville could be either a tight one-hour thriller or a more expansive anatomy of a destructive relationship, but until it can answer the questions it asks at the beginning, it cannot compete with the quality of this year’s best new plays.

Belleville is at the Donmar Warehouse until 3 February. Tickets are largely sold-out but at 12pm each Monday the Donmar releases £10 Klaxon tickets for the week ahead. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


The Deep Blue Sea – National Theatre

The Deep Blue Sea - National Theatre

Sometimes an actor and a part make perfect sense, and you know in advance that the production you’re about to see is going to be pretty special. It’s different to the thrill of seeing a favourite or particularly famous actor treading the boards; instead it’s the knowledge that the role will particularly suit the specific skills, experience and style of the performer. The announcement then that Helen McCrory was to play Hester Collyer in Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea made perfect sense and may well be her finest stage performance.

McCrory is probably best known (outside the theatre) for her more outlandish roles playing dangerously eccentric characters such as Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, while her Medea for the National a couple of years ago was a ball of anger and vengeance. Yet it was a tiny role as a grieving widow in the film version of Ian McEwen’s Enduring Love, opposite a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, which really highlighted her ability to convey conflicted despair – a performance that made her perfect casting as Rattigan’s deeply troubled heroine.

The Deep Blue Sea is Rattigan’s most personal and emotionally charged play, based on the death of his former lover Kenny Morgan who gassed himself in a tiny boarding house in Camden Town after being thrown over by his current partner. A version of this true story was recently performed at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston which used Rattigan’s play as a template without quite matching the emotional pitch of the fictional version.

The Deep Blue Sea opens with Hester Collyer found alive in her flat by her landlady and a neighbour having failed to kill herself when the meter ran out of gas. It’s the 1950s when suicide was a crime and the discovery puts everyone in a difficult moral position. Hester is troubled by the dying embers of a passionate relationship with her younger lover Freddie Page, a former fighter pilot who she met when golfing with her husband Sir William Collyer, a High Court Judge. A well-meaning lodger calls her husband and in the course of twenty-four hours Hester must confront both the men in her life, the overwhelming feelings of love she cannot control, as well as her own belief that life is not worth continuing.

Hester is a sympathetic but not entirely likeable woman who seems to make quite rational and calm decisions about significant matters while simultaneously unable to overcome the feeling she has for Freddie, a feeling they both know he does not return to the same degree. It can be difficult then for an audience to understand a woman who seems so rational and yet so entirely unable to master her own feelings. Yet McCrory makes Hester’s predicament deeply affecting and entirely believable. She begins in an emotionally turbulent state having just tried to commit suicide and as soon as McCrory appears on stage the tension ramps up instantly. It’s not an easy place for an actress to begin, but McCrory is superb allowing Hester to dismiss her actions with curtly polite thanks to all involved – a constant struggle between the expected propriety of her actions and the unquellable depth of her feelings.

And McCrory’s Hester feels deeply, yet retains an inner steel. We see her as both a fragile creature unable to imagine a life without the strong feeling she has experienced with Freddie – the audience may believe as the other characters do that it is only an infatuation but Hester believes it is more than that – yet when offered an escape by her former husband, she is able to rationalise her decision to give up her life to it. “Love is what happened to me” she says and because of it she is no longer the same woman she was in her marriage to Sir William and quite decently feels she could not pretend to love her husband again for all the material comfort it may bring her. McCrory’s fiery passion for Freddie that so often becomes histrionic as she begs him to stay with her is painful to watch and throughout you have the sense she is a dead woman walking, that without him she will allow herself to crumble. It’s a real tour de force performance that is one of the finest things you’ll see on the London stage this year.

Tom Burke’s Freddie may initially seem to be the villain of the piece who has destroyed this woman’s life for a brief physical passion. Yet Rattigan gives us a far more complex character, loading Freddie’s backstory with notions of a post-war world he cannot exist in – “His life stopped in 1940” Hester says and the dull peace after the intensity of combat is something so many men found difficult to adjust to. The failure of the relationship is no more the fault of Freddie than it is of Hester as both are driven by deep character traits that always doomed their 10-month romance. He openly admits he is not someone who can feel as deeply as Hester can and considers himself broken. Although he cares for her more than any other woman he’s ever known, it doesn’t begin to equal her passion for him which ultimately drives them apart. Tom Burke is a superb Freddie, offering moments of callous disgust for Hester’s selfish suicide attempt that would have left him with a lifetime of guilt, with a level of self-realisation that engenders considerable sympathy. Their mutual passion is clear and the chemistry between the two leads if palpable, yet Freddie refuses to let himself be governed by it as Hester does and is always the one to instantly shut down her caresses which Burke suggests are futile now they both know it’s over. It’s again a powerful performance that retains sympathy for Freddie’s motives despite the pain he causes and we see it costs him a great deal to break it off but knows that logic must rule emotion.

There’s no less tension in the duologues between Hester and her husband which have the easy interaction of two people long involved with one another. Peter Sullivan as Sir William initially remains a little aloof seeming neither surprised nor overly concerned by Hester’s actions but it’s abundantly clear in Sullivan’s heartfelt performance that considerable love still exists for his wife and his distance is a protection against further hurt as well as a badge of his class and age. Their talk of old acquaintances he thinks is a way to lure her back, while for her they’re just amusing memories of a life Hester no longer requires. William represents for her a form of salvation she refuses to take where a return to married life would be a betrayal of herself, of the sexuality she has discovered with Freddie and a life of stifled pretending that she won’t renew.

The National has a great reputation when it comes to Rattigan and a production of After the Dance in 2010 was one its biggest success of the last decade – the lead played by a pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch in what remains, in my view, his finest stage role. Here director Carrie Cracknell has created a tense and emotionally wrought atmosphere that ebbs and flows like the tide, and perfectly pitched throughout, while Tom Scutt’s beautiful semi-sheer design in shades of sea bluey-green allows you to see the lives happening beyond the walls of Hester’s flat giving context to her own somewhat self-indulgent struggle and the many other people just getting on with it. This is not quite the shabby lodging house of other versions, but a small and tasteful place which reinforces Hester’s slight snobbery – it’s not pure poverty to us but to her is a few degrees below the comfort she enjoyed with Sir William.

This production of The Deep Blue Sea is the best thing the National has done in years and a wonderful piece of theatre – it’s intense, consuming and deeply moving. Helen McCrory’s astonishing central performance is an impeccable piece of casting and a role that suits her skills perfectly. Her Hester is simultaneously sympathetic, pitiable, frustrating, fragile and strong, and if you’re not blinking back the tears by the end of this devastating performance then you have a harder heart than me. Rattigan has been given a new lease of life since the centenary celebrations in 2011 and in this beautiful production we are reminded just why he remains such a wonderful playwright and how sublime theatre can be when a talented actor meets the perfect part.

The Deep Blue Sea is at The National Theatre until 21 September and tickets start at £15. The production also features in the National’s 1pm Friday Rush scheme selling tickets for £20. There will be an NT Live Screening of this production on 1 September in local cinemas.


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