Hedda Gabler. National Theatre at Hull New Theatre. 18.11.17

Photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

As he got out of his seat for the interval one of the young guys sitting behind me said ruefully, “she reminds me of a girl I once knew”. This was probably as succinct a tribute to Patrick Marber’s new translation of Hedda Gabler as you could hope to hear. The National Theatre’s 2017 production is bold, modern and minimalist, full of ideas, and not a word of this new, fresh version jars.

I will admit to being disappointed when I found out that Ruth Wilson, who played Hedda in this production’s sold out run at the National would not be playing the part in Hull, but I needn’t have been. I was on the front row so I had the benefit of seeing Lizzie Rowe’s performance close up and she understood the part perfectly- I felt as though I could see every thought. She lights up when she can see a way to niggle someone and encourages confidences because she knows that the information may be useful to her. Nothing is heartfelt and real except her wish to serve her own ego. In modern parlance you could say that Hedda is a drama queen- everything is about her. She is used to privilege, to being admired and deferred to and this has helped to give her cruel and self centred nature free rein. She really doesn’t give a damn and people who genuinely don’t care about the consequences of their actions are dangerous. They may be beautiful, charming, funny- but they are also very dangerous. It is not a stifling marriage to someone who has not paid her enough attention that destroys Hedda- the seeds are already there, sown in her own nature. She does not have the warmth to accept compliments from a loving aunt or the generosity to give her husband, Tesman, the admiration and support that would draw him towards her in the way that Thea Elvstead, her old schoolfriend is able to do. Kindness is seen as vulnerability and punished. She needs to have power over people but can only exercise it by small acts of cruelty. The fact that nobody has ever faced up to her and stopped this leads her to take her cruelty to a new extreme and when her actions are found out she destroys herself rather than live with the consequences of what she has done; a husband who is finding love and support with someone else and a ruthless man- Judge Brack- who knows her secret and can destroy her any time that he chooses. I agree with that young man- we have all known someone like Hedda- they just haven’t pushed their luck quite as far as she does.

I have to say that I thought Abhin Galeya’s Tesman was a bit of a catch. He is lively, genial and good looking and has the potential to give Hedda the power base that she wants. He may be a second rate academic but with a bit of luck they might have got by as a couple. It was easy to see why Hedda had thought him a good bet as a husband who she could tolerate and manipulate……… until the honeymoon ended. I also liked Annabel Bates as Thea Elvsted. She has a natural, warm stage presence and the character has a genuine goodness which is important to the play, both as a foil for Hedda and as a way forward for Tesman at the end- a shaft of hope.

The production has some fine moments which spring out of the direction from Ivo Van Hove. I loved the sequence where Hedda trashes buckets of flowers and pins them to the wall with a stapler- more symbols of kindness and generosity destroyed. The intercom where we see the visitors before the arrive is a nice touch and there are many times where the action is freed up and allowed to be fast and intense by a light, unfussy approach. It was a good idea to have Berthe constantly at the side of the stage watching, a fine performance by Madlena Nedeva. She knows Hedda too well and with little to say she is left watching the inevitable play out grimly, knowing that all she can do is wait and obey. I would have gone for a different reading of Lovborg and Juliana but what I was given worked very well.

The set, designed by Jan Versweyveld, is a large white box with a plain picture window, stage right, that has the kind of pale blinds often seen in offices in front of it and a patio door. Light is important- Hedda dislikes it- and the window provides some nice effects. There is a feeling of a large, luxurious, unfinished space, the kind of space that people talk about rattling around in, and enough clear floor area for powerful drama to take place on a dramatic scale which focuses on the characters. This is never going to be a home.

I have waited a long while to see Hedda Gabler on stage. I am so glad it was this one.

Advertisements

Jane Eyre. National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic at Hull New Theatre. 28-09-17

The ensemble. NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

Jane Eyre is one of the best loved heroines of a nineteenth century novel. She has been read and admired ever since she first appeared in 1837. She is strong minded and plain and she suffers deeply, overcoming obstacles to find happiness, allowing nothing to stop her. It’s a formula which has stood the test of time and writers have been using Charlotte Bronte’s template ever since. If you are going to put the book on stage in front of a sharp audience who know the book backwards (as one elderly lady sitting near me said when refusing a programme) then you had better get it right. Add to that a mass of plot and a novel which is written in the first person and you have a big job on your hands. Above all the central character needs a strong performance and we must never feel that we have come to the theatre to see a 3D version of a Sunday night classic television serial. There is nothing wrong with those if they are well done- and Jane Eyre has been quite beautifully put on screen- but they have no place in a theatre. It’s a big ask.

The National Theatre/Bristol Old Vic production has been brought back thanks to the huge success it had three years ago. It was devised by the original cast, with the director Sally Cookson, and its biggest achievement is its theatricality and playfulness. The set immediately brings to mind a children’s playground. It is a series of ladders, slopes and platforms and all of it is used at speed with great accuracy during the course of the play. There are some lovely moments of pure theatre throughout like the one that opens the production where baby Jane’s birth is announced and the baby is unfurled into a dress which is then put onto Nadia Clifford who plays Jane. This is storytelling and we are asked to become complicit in whatever the cast show us, whether it is a moving carriage journey conjured up from the co-ordinated movement of cast members standing shoulder to shoulder and stamping their feet or a dog who is nothing more than a flexible whippy tail in the hand of Paul Mundell. Nothing more is needed other than an actor who gives his whole self to the task so that we believe in him. The music is lovely, with some beautifully sung songs from Melanie Marshall as Rochester’s poor deranged first wife and it was a very moving device to show her wandering the stage in a blood red dress like a ghost. It made Bertha a constant presence- as she should be. I wasn’t as sure about the way Rochester was portrayed. This was absolutely nothing to do with Tim Delap’s performance, perhaps more to do with the Rochester I already had in my head.

Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Of course at the centre of everything is Jane herself. If that character doesn’t work then nothing else matters. A lot is asked of Nadia Clifford, both emotionally and technically. She gives us a fierce, uncompromising Jane who knows her own mind. She has a lot of injustice to be fierce about and we watch her grow up painfully and learn to master herself and grow in dignity and strength. It is a fine performance. I loved the way she was both fully emotionally present and also technically precise. There was a lovely moment towards the end of the first half where she was put in an adult dress for the first time and her whole stance and demeanour changed without a word being said. There is a lot going on in this production around her and it needed great strength and presence to keep us focused on her. Sadly she was unable to continue thanks to injury so Jenny Johns took over as Jane for the second half. This was fascinating to watch as she made the part work in a completely different way. The two actresses are very different physical types and this was a more measured, elegant Jane which I enjoyed for its own sake, as well as being full of admiration for the fact that she was able to slot into a very technical, fast production without missing a beat.

I loved this show and I am grateful for the chance to see it so close to home thanks to Hull being City of Culture. Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels and I would not have been slow to tell you if I hadn’t.

A Brief History of Women. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 14-09-17

Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

Alan Ayckbourn has had a long and productive career and produced over seventy full length plays. The best of his works are accepted as classics of their time, still widely produced, and in his late seventies he is still writing. One of the great pleasures of seeing his latest play, A Brief History of Women, “a comedy in four parts about an unremarkable man and the remarkable women who loved him, left him, or lost him”, is being able to see how his work has changed over the years. There is a gentle, wistful tone which has replaced the sharp edge that skewered the middle classes so expertly and produced some of the funniest visual comedy of the last century. This brings both gains and losses, as change always does. The comedy in A Brief History of Women is sometimes the weakest element. While the matinee audience enjoyed joining in with the panto section the off stage children in rehearsal didn’t really convince me in the way that Ayckbourn’s off stage characters have in the past and it all seemed a bit broad brush and derivative. At his best the pin point accuracy of Ayckbourn’s comedy makes you laugh and wince at the same time. In contrast there is sometimes great delicacy in the writing, particularly when the central character, Anthony and the woman who will become his wife fall in love, and in the final scene. There is real heart, an elegaic quality to the writing at times, which I really enjoyed.

Having got the losses out of the way I am going to concentrate on the gains as there are plenty of them. When I took my seat and looked down at the set it felt as though I had come home. Four areas of a large house, a house which almost becomes an additional character, were marked out on the floor of the stage in a way that we have seen often over the years, cleverly characterised without being cluttered. The action of the play sees the house go through several changes over the lifetime of the central character, and as time progressed this was marked by small telling set changes- one of which drew a round of applause after it was completed. It was a small space set out with great skill to tell a story by designer Kevin Jenkins, working alongside someone who knows the SJT better than anyone else will ever know it. We were in safe hands. Ayckbourn’s own direction was exemplary- it was a joy to see the accuracy with which the action tracked the hired servant who was moving from space to space and the fast moving scenes had a filmic quality as the lights rose and dimmed, following him, while the action in other areas went on unseen. The actors movements and the sound effects of doors as they opened and closed were beautifully synchronised and what could easily have been messy and confusing in lesser hands rang out clear as a bell. That may sound like a small detail but trust me it isn’t. There were some lovely sequences between scenes later in the play, when the big house had become a school, which were almost dance like in their precision and music was used to set a mood and underscore emotion right through the play in a way that really worked.

The actors work beautifully as a company. Each of them plays contrasting parts during the course of the play, held together by a charming, truthful, central performance from Antony Eden as Anthony Spate. This is a gentle, dignified man, a good person, and it takes an actor of real quality to play goodness. There is nothing to hide behind- you just have to be. The play would not have worked without him.

I came away from this production feeling quite nostalgic, looking back at changes, both at the SJT and my own life, and counting myself lucky to have been able to see a new Ayckbourn play one more time.

Di and Viv and Rose. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 24-08-17

Production photograph by Tony Bartholomew.

“I’ve gone back to fish on Fridays and not being a lesbian.”

Amelia Bullimore’s play Di and Viv and Rose, first seen at Hampstead theatre in 2013, is a piece of popular theatre with some heart and depth and three truthful and engaging characters who are easy to identify with- especially if you are a woman of a certain age. It’s the kind of theatre that there should be more of. A long friendship between three women who meet at university is explored and we are shown how the vagaries of life impact on their relationships. It is solidly rooted in character and doesn’t particularly try to make any points about the wider world or the changing politics of the times so we are made to focus directly on the three women and it is all the better for that. It makes it a very personal, heartfelt play which is easy to relate to and easy to like. The scenes move along quickly, establishing time and character with a clever shorthand, especially at the start, in a way that never feels rushed- the communal phone in the early scenes worked particularly well in the round. The music is perfectly chosen and has the power to take you right back to the era it represents- especially if you heard it first time around. Women’s friendships are communicative and confessional but they can also be volatile and this is captured perfectly as the play progresses.

The three women are nicely contrasted. Rose is lively and outgoing, ready to make the most of her first taste of freedom. She is naive, well meaning and promiscuous in a kind of open hearted innocent way. Margaret Cabourn-Smith plays her with a lively stage presence and a natural warmth. Viv is the hardworking, focused academic who knows exactly what she wants and ends up getting it. Grace Cookey-Gam has great style and becomes very moving in the later stages of the play. My favourite of the three women, and the one who I think is given the strongest story and develops most as time goes on, is Di. Di is a sporty, gay woman. She is socially awkward to start with but gains style and maturity as time goes on and she finds her confidence along with a certain bitter knowledge of life. Polly Lister plays her beautifully. One of her speeches in particular was utterly heartbreaking and it will stay with me for a long time. I won’t spoil it by giving away the context but I doubt you will ever see it done better. They all work together well and become a believable threesome, helped by naturalistic dialogue that flows easily.

Lotte Wakeham’s direction has given the production it’s speed and this is important in a play that moves through time with a lot of short scenes and the design by Jason Taylor gives an appropriate sense of transience as life moves on. Lighted packing boxes are used imaginatively and props are used to call up a setting quickly and easily, but it was the acting which impressed me most. I came away with those characters in my head and that is down to three very good performances and some great teamwork on stage. It’s not a play which will necessarily go down as a classic but it’s a clever, heartfelt piece of writing and we need more like it. The middle ground is not well enough served in theatre- the space between a pot boiler and a challenging cerebral workout- and we need more plays like it. If we are honest that is where most of us are and we need to see ourselves reflected back from the stage.

Angels in America. Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Live relay from the National Theatre.

James McArdle as Louis and Nathan Stewart Jarrett as Belize. Production photograph by Helen Maybanks.

“I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you. The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on Earth sounds less like freedom to me. You come with me to room 1013 over at the hospital, I’ll show you America. Terminal, crazy and mean. I live in America, Louis, that’s hard enough, I don’t have to love it. You do that. Everybody’s got to love something.”
Belize. Perestroika. Act 4 scene 3.

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is an extraordinary piece of writing, “a gay fantasia on national themes” conceived on an epic scale. It consists of over eight hours of theatre, spread across two plays, telling the story of the early years of the AIDS crisis in America in a way which is both deeply personal and political. It starts traditionally enough before veering off into fantasy and becoming gloriously theatrical in a way that is too rare on stage. There is some blistering dialogue, giving opportunities for the actors that they might wait a lifetime for. It is a flawed masterpiece which overreaches itself, and is certainly in need of an edit, but given what is offered to us it is churlish to say so. We are lucky to see it on stage again as it needs considerable resources and actors of rare talent to do it justice. I missed the National Theatre’s original production back in the nineties and I have been waiting to see it ever since. Given the speed at which it sold out so has everybody else. Thankfully I had never read it and had only a general idea of what was going to happen which made it very exciting. The writing constantly surprised me. It is fearlessly emotional and theatrical, taking unexpected twists and turns, and I was able to relish each of them with a fresh eye. It is an experience so overwhelming to sit through that, with hindsight, it is frustrating that it is not perfect, which reminded me of the quote from Browning’s Andrea del Sarto, “ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter. Production photograph by Helen Maybanks

As Prior Walter Andrew Garfield gives one of the greatest stage performances that I have ever seen. Prior’s AIDS diagnosis wrecks his relationship and his settled, controlled life. He is vulnerable, touching, stylish, funny, brave and sometimes desperately angry. It is a part that he will remember, and be grateful for, for the rest of his life. His boyfriend Louis simply can’t cope with what he knows will be ahead of him and bails out. This is a huge betrayal at a time when the gay community were forced to help each other in the face of society’s fear and indifference. I really felt for Louis. He always has something to say about politics, about caring from a distance, but when he is expected to show up and demonstrate some personal feeling in terrible circumstances he finds that he can’t, however much he wants to, and it tears him apart. James McArdle makes him just as funny, poignant and frustrating as he needs to be. We need to sympathise with him while not forgiving him for his betrayal and we do.

This speech, spoken by Roy Cohn a ruthless, amoral lawyer, who is also diagnosed with AIDS is one of the plays darkest moments. It is a terrifying performance by Nathan Lane. He is a Broadway legend but I think I would have known that without being told. It is impossible to watch him without feeling a sense of foreboding.

“Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels: “gay”, “homosexual”, “lesbian.” You think they tell you who a person sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. Like all labels, they refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? In the pecking order. Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Who owes me favors. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call. To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can’t get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me?”

The hapless, closeted Mormon Joseph- who is way out of his depth when his ambition and frustration lead him to get involved in Roy’s shady dealing- is beautifully played by Russell Tovey. He is in the process of destroying his wife Harper’s life and sanity by being unable to give her the intimacy and attention that she craves and his religion is a source of guilt and confusion rather than comfort. The production gave us a sharper, gutsier Harper from Denise Gough than I would have liked but I can see why that decision was made- especially in the second play.

The character who gave me most pleasure was Belize, an openly gay, transvestite nurse who is brim full of intelligence and New York sass. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is a breath of fresh air amongst all the suffering and angst, a wise voice who we can rely on to survive. He can speak volumes with a slight turn of the head or a raised eyebrow and I just loved him, and his character, to bits.

The title mentions angels and my goodness there is a spectacular one. Some fine puppetry, designed by Finn Caldwell and Nickine puppetry, provides her wings and Amanda Lawrence provides her dark heart and flamboyant soul, bringing Prior Walter’s delusions to life.

Angels in America must be one of the most difficult directing jobs you could possibly have, even with all the resources of the National theatre at your fingertips but Marianne Elliot is used to big challenges and the long sequences of short scenes are quickly and economically staged allowing the performances to shine. The only part which I might hope to see working better one day was the heaven scene in Perestroika. I would have liked a bit more speed and spectacle at that point. Maybe I just loved that angel too much…………………

There is so much more that I could say. It was just extraordinary……. it really was.

The Tempest. RSC at the Barbican theatre.

The Tempest 2017. Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The Tempest is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I have seen it quite a few times over the years but never like the current RSC production which is gracing the stage of the Barbican theatre. I am going to start by talking about the set and production design- usually a bad sign but not this time. There are moments- whole scenes even- where I could hardly believe what I was seeing. In the hands of the designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and The Imaginarium Studios the island becomes a real character in a way that most productions can only hope for. Its noises, sounds and sweet airs become tangible, set amongst shimmering patterns of light and colour. Bravura spectacles are conjured out of thin air. I was able to watch a Prospero who really did seem to be able to do magic- a fact which made the ending all the more powerful as I had seen with my own eyes what he was giving up. It is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen on a stage, filling the Barbican theatre with light, colour and illusion. From the moment that the huge ribs of the wooden ship which formed the set began to shake in a fierce sea, an effect created purely by a trick of the light, until Prospero’s perfectly judged, simply spoken, final speech standing in a small pool of white light, over one thousand people were held in the grip of the kind of experience that only live theatre can give you. As the applause started I looked across into the audience, surprised to remember that there were other people alongside me. All that spectacle had been stripped away, distilled down into a single figure on the stage, speaking gently to each one of us individually. If this isn’t the future of large scale theatre I’ll be astonished.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017. Mark Quartley (centre) as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Of course the real wonder of the production lies in Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. It might have been tempting for an actor playing Prospero, set against that kind of spectacle, to overplay, feeling that they had to be somehow bigger, more commanding just to match up to it. Simon Russell Beale asserts himself quietly by using simple honesty and truth. He means every word that he says. He is the greatest Prospero that I have seen- and I saw Paul Schofield be wonderful in the part when I was a teenager. There is power- as in the electrifying moment when he screams in Ariel’s face, realising that Ariel has greater compassion than he can find in himself at that moment and his own magical power is not enough- but there is great gentleness and humanity too. His scenes with Miranda are tender and raw and his relationship with Ariel is both complex and heartbreaking. This is a play about mortality, a play about accepting your own limitations and those of others, a play about forgiving and letting go. It takes an actor with a big heart and great delicacy to stand at the centre of it and show us that.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017 Mark Quartley as Ariel. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Ariel is one of the most fascinating characters in Shakespeare and in this production he is placed centre stage both as a character and within the virtual reality. We see him trapped, we see him as a giant screaming harpie, we see him tease, we see him fly. He truly is a watchful, mercurial spirit, belonging everywhere and nowhere, who is both mysterious and strange, but alongside the virtuoso special effects we also need to see and feel a real presence who sulks, does his master’s bidding eagerly or reluctantly, and who longs for his freedom. This can only come from an actor who is physically present. Mark Quartley gives a fine performance which both acknowledges his alter ego and creates a strong, vibrant, yet ethereal presence on stage. It is typical of the attention to detail which is obvious throughout the production that when he is finally released from his bondage he runs out to freedom through the one exit which has not been used at all during the show. We have no idea where he is going.

Jenny Rainsford and Daniel Easton have some nice moments as Miranda and Ferdinand and the comedy is well played- especially when Trinculo hides with Caliban- but it does seem a little thin in comparison to the wonders surrounding it. Jonathan Broadbent is a loathsome and believable usurping brother who deserves all he gets. There is nobody in the cast who lets the side down. It is particularly good to see the masque performed as it is often cut and it is wonderfully sung and staged. The play makes much more sense with it there.

Special effects of any kind can be a mixed blessing. they can overwhelm and take the place of real feeling and humanity. It is a real tribute to the work of the cast, and to the director Greg Doran’s deep understanding of the play that this never happens here. There is a unity of vision which allows the verse to continue to dominate and have clarity.

Just a few times in my life I have seen a production which makes me feel privileged to be there. When the play is The Tempest, one of the first Shakespeare plays that I saw as a young girl, there is a definitive central performance and my favourite character is allowed to run riot among great beauty………. well it just doesn’t get much better than that.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 06-07-17

Serena Manteghi as LV. Photograph by Sarah Taylor.

The Lancashire playwright Jim Cartwright’s play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice premiered at the National Theatre in 1992 to great acclaim, but it is a very Scarborough play ( the film was shot in the town) and a perfect choice for the showpiece of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s summer season. The writing is fresh, sharp and solidly based on character and because of this it hasn’t dated, even though it looks back at a very different world. Little Voice (LV) is a touching, birdlike character with a great talent, marooned amongst louder, coarser people who do not see her personal worth, only a talent which can be used for their own ends. She is vulnerable, easy to manipulate and potentially damage, hidden in her room grieving over her dead father’s record collection. She has little connection with the outside world until her gift is discovered by chance and a local theatrical agent on the make and her out of control, needy mother, push her into performing. She deserves so much more from life and as we watch her story play out and become darker we long for her to get it.

LV is a great part, an unusual one which must be quite hard to cast. It is the kind of part which can make a career take off, as it did for Jane Horrocks in the original production, and it demands a lot of the actress playing it, in particular great truth which needs to shine out in a grotesque and unforgiving world. Serena Manteghi gives us a delicate and subtle performance which does this perfectly, lighting up the small space and also providing a welcome relief from the performances around her which are all very good indeed but sometimes a little overplayed for the space that they find themselves in. The Stephen Joseph has its own very particular and unusual dynamic and this is all too easy to do. Less is more.

I found LV’s mother Mari Hoff almost as hard to take as she does. Polly Lister takes the part by the scruff of the neck and shakes it mercilessly, until she is finally made to face her self deception and vulgarity. It is a brave performance and it needs to be. I liked Sean McKenzie’s performance as Ray Say more and more as the play went on. Ray begins as a cliche but the writing gives opportunities for the actor to go beyond this and he made the most of some great moments. Gurgeet Singh was quietly touching as LV’s admirer Billy, a young telephone engineer who is as shy and awkward as she is, and the ending between the two of them, where he encourages LV to find her own voice, was gentle, satisfying and perfectly played.

I have been seeing shows at the Stephen Joseph for over thirty years now and it was a great pleasure to see how Paul Robinson, the new artistic director, used the space, placing LV’s bedroom hideaway up above one of the voms and sending Billy up into the lighting rig and control box. This kind of invention is very much in the tradition of the “old” Stephen Joseph before the theatre moved to its current site in what was the Odeon cinema and we have not seen enough of it lately. It is the kind of creativity which has always been possible here- one which can float a cabin cruiser in a tiny space or make a house with two stories live in two dimensions- and it is what will keep the SJT alive in difficult times.