The Man with Big Balls.


It’s tough being a street performer. You have to mark out your area, claim a space that was never meant to be yours, and set about persuading people who had no intention of watching you, or anyone else, perform for them in the middle of their busy day to watch. Everybody, even those who are simply sightseeing, has something else that they were about to do. You have to stop them in their tracks and take control of their day with nothing to help you- no comfortable seats, no admission charge, no stage, no lighting, no microphones.

It was fascinating watching Man With Big Balls weave his way into the lunchtime crowd in York. He needed to assert himself over the passing crowd and persuade them to do what he needed them to do while remaining positive and friendly. He kept those people who had stopped to listen interested and made them active participants, while commenting on others who were only walking past and attempting to draw them in. He had to establish his credentials, make us believe that something was about to happen that was worth sticking around for. There were regular teasers about what we were about to see while at the same time he was asserting ownership of his space, getting people to follow his instructions in order to form an audience who became a unit, even enlisting their help in dealing with a pair of drinkers who were nowhere near as funny as they thought they were. I loved the fact that a middle aged woman who had simply been walking past a few minutes before was prepared to wade in on his behalf- after he overheard her comment and asked for her help- in order to tell the two men politely exactly why she thought that they should move on. They did. Finally we were treated to a feat of juggling, balancing and catching. Balls were thrown by members of the crowd. The success of the final feat relied on the ability of a few strangers to listen to instructions and carry them out. Never has any performer worked harder to earn the performance money which had to be persuaded out of the audience at the end. I reckon if you can pull off a successful street performance you can probably perform just about anything, anywhere. Well done that man!

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Winter Solstice. Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 5-4-18

Roland Schimmelpfennig, one of Germany’s most performed playwrights, wrote Winter Solstice during 2013 and 2014 as a response to the rise of the new right in Europe. It is the story of what happens when Corinna, a naive, lonely older woman invites Rudolph, a plausible stranger who she has met on a train, into the family home of her daughter Bettina and her husband Albert. They are educated liberals, a film maker and a writer, whose marriage is under strain. It is Christmas and Rudolph doesn’t leave. To start with he is delightful in the eyes of everybody but Albert, until slowly his true nature is revealed, although we are never sure how much of what follows is real and how much is happening inside Albert’s over-medicated head.

You have to think hard to keep up with what is happening as this is a thoroughly Brechtian play, full of artifice. How the story is told is every bit as important as the story itself. It starts in a production meeting for one of Bettina’s films and we are never allowed to forget that we are in a theatre as the cast both play their characters and narrate the action. There is no set and the jumble of props and metal trestle tables from that original meeting are moved around with great speed and accuracy throughout the play to tell the story and used to signify whatever might be needed. The whole production is very cleverly directed and devised and makes some powerful and timely points about the insidious nature of populism and political manipulation- this is a play which is designed to make you think rather than touch the heart. It must have packed quite a punch when it was first seen at home in its original language. It fitted in the round at the SJT beautifully with the cast opening it out and sometimes speaking directly to the audience. I was more in awe of their technical skills than their characterisation as I watched them at work, delivering lines in and out of character at speed, making sure that everything was there in the right place at the right time and finding drama and humour in quick succession.

This was clearly a really well made piece of theatre, recast and redirected from a production that won four off West End Awards but, while I am very glad to have seen it, it wasn’t really for me any more than Brecht is. Having said that, it is the first time that a stranger has seen me in the audience, recognised me the following day and stopped me in Filey wanting to talk about a production, so they must have been doing something right. I think Roland Schimmelpfennig would probably be quite happy about that.

Napoleon Disrobed. Told by an Idiot at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 22-03-18

Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

Napoleon disrobed, a “comic alternative history” of what happened to Napoleon after he fell from power is a playful and inventive piece of theatre, typical of the work of Told by an Idiot, directed by Kathryn Hunter who knows a few things about theatre. It takes risks and asks its audience to go with it. It is the kind of telling that only works on stage which is always a good sign. As we see Napoleon attempting to come to terms with his loss of power and wondering who he really is, we are asked interesting questions about status, power and control in a lighthearted, absurdist way. There is a lot to enjoy, above all two technically accomplished and focused performances from Ayesha Antoine and Paul Hunter. They have to think fast and keep their timing perfect, both vocally and physically. Paul Hunter engages with the audience and has some moving moments where we see him as he once was while Ayesha Antoine plays a number of parts with style and charm. I was delighted to see her back here again. Kathryn Hunter has asked a lot of them- the direction is fast and often quite technically demanding. The audience are part of the action throughout and playing a character and managing the physical demands of the show while keeping it moving forward must feel a bit like juggling.

The stage itself, designed by Michael Vale, is a wooden platform which can be rocked or raked and have things hidden under it via trapdoors- a wonderful tool which the production makes full use of- and the backdrop is made of three coloured lengths of cloth forming a tricolour. It’s a clever and versatile setting.

This is a very good production- it has worked well elsewhere and it will work well again- so why did I feel that the performance I saw didn’t quite take off at the SJT? Firstly, to allow for the staging, part of the round had to be screened off so we were on three sides rather than in the round. The round at the Stephen Joseph is never a comfortable space when that has to be done. There is a sweet spot, a connection with the audience, which is lost and what is a very special space seems to sulk. Napoleon Disrobed relies on that connection and on this particular afternoon too many of the matinee audience I was part of were uncomfortable with it rather than delighted. From my seat I was looking across at the tiered audience on the other side so I didn’t have to guess about that. They were wondering what was going on rather than allowing themselves to follow a flight of theatrical fancy. It was their loss. Maybe they hadn’t read the words “comic” and “alternative” in the tag-line. The one moment which they really made work was when those who had been given paper Napoleon hats were asked to stand up,look at Napoleon and copy what he did. As they pointed and put on their hats they were serious and uncertain and the effect was genuinely eerie. If only the audience had worked as hard as the cast things might have been very different.

Amadeus. National Theatre. 13-03-18

Adam Gillen as Wolfgang Mozart in Amadeus at the National Theatre (c) Marc Brenner

“Forgive me, Majesty. I am a vulgar man! But I assure you, my music is not.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Watching the National Theatre’s revival of Amadeus is an overwhelming experience. I only wish that its author Peter Shaffer had lived to see it. It is a very personal, intense story of jealousy and hubris; a small but marketable talent which has brought social success set against the kind of genius which will always go its own way and scatter everything before it, even when given to a rude, annoying little egotist. However much Salieri, the established “court composer” fights against the young upstart Mozart and puts obstacles in his way to make him suffer there is only going to be one winner. The “voice of God” which pains him so much may come from an “obscene child” but it is still the voice of God and only that can confer immortality.

The play demands two great central performances and Lucien Msamati as Salieri and Adam Gillen as Mozart deliver them in spades. Both characters are deeply sympathetic as well as flawed.

Lucien Msamati appeals directly to the audience from the start (as fellow mediocrities) and we know how he feels. He commands attention alone on stage or rises above a spectacular tumult of music and action seemingly effortlessly. We may not like Salieri but we can understand him. He is our alter ego and who can say that they would not have behaved as badly as he did when provoked by a far greater talent which appeared in the form of someone with no social graces or sense of the politeness and restraint necessary to succeed at court? The rules which he had lived by were being thrown aside. He was good enough to know how far he was surpassed but not good enough to do anything about it and that is a bitter pill to swallow- one that we all have to force down.

Adam Gillen as Mozart is just extraordinary. It is easy to show us the hyperactive, egotistical little upstart and he does, but what makes him extraordinary is that we also see the heart of the music. He is a vulnerable young man who has been denied a normal childhood, made to work frantically with a strict discipline that has left him with a need to let rip. That kind of childhood leaves a scar and he shows us both the genius and the lost child. It is a performance that I will never forget. His costumes are utterly perfect too, which always helps. Adelle Leonce is a perfect wife for him as Constanze- not an easy job- and they make a believable couple.

The director Michael Longhurst took a huge risk in this production and needed all his considerable skills, along with the choreographer Imogen Knight, to marshal both the cast and the South Bank Sinfonia who appear alongside them and play Mozart’s music live. This opens out the text gloriously, making what Salieri is telling us come to life, and allowing us to see the joy and freedom that Mozart finds in his music as he conducts. Their discipline is immaculate and they have been given complex direction, moving around and commenting silently on the action as they play. Their timing is perfect throughout. The design by Chloe Lamford is spectacular. The Olivier revolve and the whole of the space is used to great effect as we are shown different perspectives and viewpoints and the costumes are colourful and witty, period with a twist. It is beautifully organised too- we always know exactly where we should look. This production doesn’t just fill the huge and notoriously difficult space, it commands it and batters it into submission. It is a complex and ambitious concept which was either going to fall flat on its face or soar and it is thanks to the talent and, perhaps even more than that, the discipline of everybody involved that it takes flight.

I think that the biggest compliment I can pay this production is that if I ever see Amadeus again I want it done in exactly the same way and if Adam Gillen can come back and play Mozart again that will suit me just fine.

Hamlet. Royal Shakespeare Company at Hull New Theatre. 15-02-18

Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet. Production photograph copyright RSC.

The RSC, only an hour away, with a production of Hamlet set in Africa that I had wanted to see in 2016 and missed, and Paapa Essiedu, who I had admired as Romeo for Tobacco Factory, playing Hamlet. It is fair to say that I was excited as I made my way to the New Theatre in Hull on the train.

I liked Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet very much. I believed in his grief and his anger. He was warm and engaging- a nice guy- and in better times he might have been a happy and uncomplicated young man. He handled the soliloquies beautifully with fine timing and a clear understanding and made a real connection with the audience. I missed some of the humour and the sense of danger that I feel Hamlet should have but he had clearly looked inside himself and found the part which is what every actor playing Hamlet needs to do. If an actor is brave enough to do that for you in some ways you can have nothing to complain about- each person will find something different.

The rest of the cast were new for the 2018 tour. Lorna Brown looked wonderful as Gertrude- plenty of style and hauteur- and Clarence Smith was a convincing Claudius although I didn’t really feel the turmoil as their world fell apart later in the play. Mimi Ndiwene was very moving as Ophelia. She had real warmth in the early scenes and delicacy and grace as her mind weakened. The other cast member who really impressed me was Ewart James Walters as both the ghost and the first gravedigger. He had great presence and authority.

The African setting brought with it plenty of colour, some exciting drumming, and a fine stage fight at the end, but while I can easily imagine the events of the plot transposed to a small corrupt country on that continent I’m not sure I really felt the reality of corruption and threat at the heart of Elsinore as strongly as I would have hoped. It should have worked much more strongly than it did. That has to be down to the direction from Simon Godwin. I would like to have seen the original production as a comparison. There was a bit of awkwardness in some of the stage positioning too which perhaps came from adjusting to a fresh venue, although I liked the way that the auditorium was used, especially for the ghost.

It was a great treat to be able to to see the RSC so close to home in East Yorkshire and while there were plenty of empty seats- money is tight for many of us on the East coast- those of us in the audience were delighted to see the company. There were young children in the audience who were completely enthralled and people standing at the end. It is always easy to come away from Hamlet musing over what you didn’t feel was quite right, this is one of the things that makes it worth coming back to see it again, but nothing should take away from the fact that the RSC had come to Hull. I really hope that they come back. We need them.

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.

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.