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.

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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.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s Globe. Via live relay. 11-09-16

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Katy Owen as Puck.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that responds well to experimentation and playfulness and in this summer’s production at Shakespeare’s Globe it got plenty of both. This is a loud, full hearted, boisterous account of the play which means that some of the quiet magic that can, and should, be there is lost but it still works beautifully. In her first production it is already clear that the new artistic director of the Globe, Emma Rice, understands exactly how this unusual and potentially exciting space works and what can be done there. This is a brave production which takes risks and they pay off. If young people don’t like this version of the Dream then there is no hope. Before name checking Bon Jovi and Hoxton hipsters during a Shakespeare play you had better know what you are doing or you are going to look like a dad dancer, but the sold out audiences this summer have been delighted and in spite of it not being quite my own personal idea of the dream so was I. It had so much energy and joy that you just had to give in to it and admit that it worked.

Sometimes you see a performance in a particular Shakespeare play, after watching a good few productions, where you think yes, that’s it, finally, that’s how it should be, and Katy Owen as Puck did that for me. She was a bundle of energy, vulnerable, sweet, cute, capricious, totally in thrall to Oberon. I have never seen that relationship so clearly thought through. It was both moving and a little bit disturbing. She was a star.

The cabaret artist Meow Meow played Titania and she looked and sounded fabulous. A real diva who was every inch a fairy Queen. Her first entrance was a joy!

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Meow Meow as Titania.

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Bottom and the fairies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There has been a lot of talk about one of the four lovers, Helena being played as a gay man- I’m not sure why. Ankur Bahl gave a perfectly judged performance as Helenus- never over the top as it could so easily have been- and his dance with Hermia early on was a classic. It worked so well that you really didn’t have to make any allowances for the change at all and in some ways it made the ending for the four lovers more moving as Demetrius came to recognise his true self.

csgtlthw8aaljvxThe rude mechanicals were very funny in Pyramus and Thisbe but I think that perhaps they lost some of their effect given that the whole production was very full on throughout. I really liked Alex Tregear as Snout-especially when she played wall with her little face shining out from her cereal boxes.

All the music, composed by Stu Barker, was beautifully judged and performed. The sitar and oboe had exactly the right kind of ethereal quality. I also loved Moritz Junge’s costume design which fused Indian and Elizabethan elements with modern street style. Everything came together to make an aesthetic of its own, with a lovely little puppet version of Titania’s Indian changeling child setting the tone. We could have been anywhere and nowhere which is a always a good place to be when watching a timeless Shakespeare comedy if you get it right.

I was really grateful to be able to see the final performance of this production via a nicely directed high quality live stream. For once I almost felt as if I was there among the groundlings whose rapt faces I could see.

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Wild. Live relay from Hampstead Theatre. 23-07-16

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Caoilfhionn Dunne and Jack Farthing in Wild. Production photograph Stephen Cumminskey.

Mike Bartlett’s play Wild, which has just finished it’s run at Hampstead is an interesting and ambitious piece of theatre. It is difficult to write about because it contains a terrific coup de theatre- even the fact that it is there shouldn’t really be given away- and this is what you come away remembering and thinking about. The other thing which makes it difficult is that I was only able to see it by live relay and this sometimes makes it hard to judge performances. I found one of the characters- Caoilfhionn Dunne as “woman” a little overdone and mannered but every time that the camera pulled back and I could see her in the same way that I would have as part of the audience things came into focus. The part was being played on stage for the benefit of an audience who were actually present and those of us who had free seats via our computer for the final performance couldn’t be taken into account. A screen performance requires a very different technique and depending on the character that they are playing, a stage performance doesn’t always translate onto screen as well as it deserves to. Perhaps it was just me………….

I admire Mike Bartlett’s ambition as a writer. He has the courage to tackle a big subject, one which is not inherently theatrical, and make it work on stage. It examines the consequences of a large scale release of private information by a whistle blower- Andrew- who has now been forced into hiding by his actions and faces an uncertain future, not knowing who to trust. It allows the play to look at the real life actions of Edward Snowden, and what they mean, both for society and for us all, as individuals who are often prepared to give up so much of our privacy without a second thought. In the past those who stole and revealed sensitive and private information were thought of as traitors but Edward Snowden has also been called a hero. It’s a complex issue and while the play doesn’t fully work, a very big ask, it goes some way to untangling it. There are just three characters in a rather average looking hotel room. This means that it needs plenty of very good dialogue and lots of energy from the actors if the writer doesn’t want to risk sending the audience to sleep. Mike Bartlett does much more than this by turning things around at the end and reminding everyone in no uncertain terms that this is a piece of theatre. This takes real imagination- and great stage design from Miriam Buether. There is humour and some sharp playing from the three actors. John Mackay is a cool, quiet, enigmatic presence as “man” and Jack Farthing gives a natural, understated and convincing performance as Andrew.

And there is always that coup de theatre. Well worth seeing. I wish I had been there.

Cathy Come Home. Cardboard Citizens. Live streaming from the Barbican, London.

106286If anyone ever says to you that Art never changed anything tell them about Cathy Come Home, the story of a young idealistic couple, Cathy and Reg, and their descent into poverty and homelessness when their luck runs out. I was only eight years old in 1966 when Ken Loach’s film was first broadcast to a stunned nation as one of the BBC Wednesday plays but I still remember vividly the final scene where Cathy’s children were taken away. It has been voted the best single TV drama ever made by viewers in 1998 and best television programme ever made by an industry poll in 2000. It led to national outrage and pity at a time when television really mattered and gathered large audiences and the foundation of Shelter, a national charity which is still doing fine work today.

Cardboard Citizens is a theatre company that brings theatre to people who are usually excluded from it. They perform in the street and in hostels, centres and prisons as well as in theatres. Homelessness is a major issue in today’s Britain just as it was in the sixties and it is a natural, even obvious, subject for them. With Ken Loach’s blessing they have remade Cathy Come Home and it is being taken on tour later this year. Each performance will be followed by a forum discussion. Last night it was performed at the Barbican centre in London and streamed live on line and I was lucky enough to find out about it in time to watch. All the cast are, or have been, homeless. It is community theatre at its best, doing just what it should be doing, and it brought back memories of the projects that the Grassmarket Project staged with the homeless of the Grassmarket at the Edinburgh festival. I was heavily involved in community theatre when I was younger and I know from experience how it can change the lives of the performers as well as energise and move those watching.- it certainly changed mine. When done well it is powerful and heartfelt with high standards and great commitment from the amateur performers, led by a professional team.

The new staging of Cathy is simple, direct and very moving. A cast of 22 tell the story with great concentration and discipline using only institutional metal and wood chairs and raincoats which become a variety of things- tenement washing for example, tarpaulin or babes in arms. There is a heartbreaking moment when Cathy’s mother in law refuses to take in her grandchild and the child which Cathy has been carrying with such care disintegrates into an overcoat in her mother in law’s arms. Short scenes and narration follow on from one another quickly and with so many people on stage it is a complex job to make sure that every chair, every person and every line is in the right place at the right time. This is a great tribute to the director Adrian Jackson and to the dedication and concentration of the cast. It’s a lot harder to get right than it looks. As the story of the disintegration of Cathy’s family is told we are also shown statistics on a screen behind the performers and simple childlike line drawing underscoring what is happening, documenting the family as it gets smaller and smaller until Cathy is left alone. There are some hard hitting lines too.

“Many social workers feel that hostel families are problem families, well they may not be problem families when they arrive but they certainly are when they leave.”

The central couple, Cathy and Reg, are beautifully played, with great truth and honesty by Elle Payne and Denholm Spurr. Cathy herself is a fine part that would challenge an experienced actress and Elle Payne was terrific. Cardboard Citizens must have been thrilled to find her and if playing Cathy has not changed both her and her future I shall be very surprised. The whole company showed great discipline and commitment, especially in the sequences where emotion was shown in movement and songs. Stand By Me in particular was a wonderful choice.

The discussion after the play was passionate and interesting. It was chaired by Samira Ahmed and featured Shelter’s chief executive Campbell Robb, Ken Loach, Mercury prize nominated musician Eska Mtungwazi, Adrian Jackson the artistic director of Cardboard citizens and the London deputy mayor for housing James Murray. Ken Loach was very forthright, as ever, declaring that “we have a government that is bent on cruelty to the poor” and wondering whether, given the popularity of programmes like Benefit Street, Cathy’s story might find a rather different reaction today. Campbell Robb pointed out that Shelter are still dealing with stories like Cathy’s every single working day. One thing is for sure, homelessness is an intractable problem and it needs a big vision and joined up thinking if it is to be eased, never mind solved, something else that Ken Loach was determined to point out. Let’s hope that London’s new deputy mayor for housing, who seemed well meaning and committed to the job, takes that message back to his office with him.

Tiger Country. Hampstead Theatre. Live relay. 17-01-15

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                                                     “You can’t save everyone.”

As someone who has had quite a lot of contact with the NHS as a patient I can vouch for the authenticity of Nicola Raine’s play Tiger Country, which has just ended its second run at Hampstead theatre with a live relay of the final performance. It takes a compassionate, truthful and sometimes searing look at the NHS. It is a fearless piece of writing which lays bare the toll the NHS takes on its staff. They are a dedicated group of people who are sometimes working under enormous strain to service the needs of their patients with great care and compassion in an underfunded, flawed and cumbersome service. In spite of this it still manages to provide amazing results free at the point of delivery to patients, but not without enormous cost to those working within the system. It’s a long way from television’s Holby City. It feels real and honest and it goes at a fastand furious pace, weaving many stories together in an intricate structure to give an impression of daily life in a busy hospital.

There are some fine performances. I loved Indira Varma as Vashti, an arrogant and difficult but ultimately dedicated and compassionate surgeon. She is a very beautiful and stylish actress who also has great conviction and strength and that is quite rare. I also liked Ruth Everett and Alastair Mackenzie, who gave two heartfelt performances as a young couple whose relationship struggled under the pressures that work brought. The whole company work beautifully together and make the most of the moments that they are given. I found every one of them completely credible as people who I might meet on my hospital visits.

How the staff manage to cope with the inevitability of failure in heartrending circumstances and learn to remain both open and caring while still being hardheaded enough to cope with a constant series of difficult decisions is one of the key themes and one of the great strengths of the writing. I also admired the way that Nicola Raine stayed well away from melodrama. This is already a highly charged scenario and there is no need for it. She also directs with great skill and the play moves along quickly, helped by great timing from the actors and simple lighting and set cues to signal a change of place or mood, a difficult thing to achieve when there are a lot of short scenes.

Really good work, yet again at Hampstead. I am very grateful that the free live streaming gives me a chance to watch it up in the north of England.

Titus Andronicus. A Visit to Shakespeare’s Globe. 13-07-14

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Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia and William Houston as Titus Andronicus. Production photograph by Nigel Norrington.

It took me a long time to get to see my first production at the Globe theatre on London’s South Bank. Since it first opened in 1997 and I am a regular theatregoer who loves Shakespeare this is is surprising- even though I live a long way from London. The final night of the 2014 revival of Lucy Bailey’s acclaimed production of Titus Andronicus was a good place to start. Red roses were thrown at the curtain call and there was an end of term feeling in the air. There were some fine performances in the grand style, particularly from Indira Varma as Tamora, Obi Abili as Aaron and William Houston as Titus. The production had gathered a lot of publicity from the fact that over 100 audience members had fainted, unable to cope with the violence. There are graphic murders, severed hands and a chopped off tongue. It was a full on production, unafraid of the link between this extreme violence and black comedy- one which took risks. Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia had to carry the brunt of this and the numbers keeling over or being led out were a real tribute to a convincing and heartfelt performance. The audience were fully involved throughout as actors moved among them, were pushed through the crowd on high towers or spoke directly to them and their response was both visible and immediate. Their attention had to be earned and sustained by the hard work of the actors. It was played, as it would have been originally, in daylight and there was no way of avoiding the fact, as is sometimes said, that they were fifty per cent of the show.

The Globe seats 857 with an additional 700 standing “groundlings”. This is about half the audience capacity of the original Globe, built in 1599. It lasted for only a short while before it burnt down on 29th June 1613. I was sitting up in one of the gentlemen’s rooms stage left with seven other people and it was still a surprisingly intimate experience given the size of the space. I was looking out over the standing area as well as the stage and the whole experience became one of watching the audience as well as that of watching the play. Normally this would be quite a damning comment on any production but it isn’t in this case. It is a comment on how a staging of this kind is a communal experience between actors and audience in a shared space. At one point a whole group left their seats to move down into the standing area and one of the cast asked them where they were going without it seeming in the least bit odd. I have no doubt at all that the original performances would have had the same fluidity and direct communication. It isn’t a choice made by the production- it is dictated by the space. I’m also sure that the original Titus audiences would have appreciated the black comedy, although I doubt that many of them would have fainted given that they were well used to seeing violence, both on the street and sanctioned by the state. They would possibly have been far more engaged with the action than some of today’s groundlings as even the standing room was expensive compared to the £5 tickets of today, which allow people to wander in for the price of a couple of mugs of coffee and wander out again when they have seen what it is like. Back then all strata of society went along to the plays and they went often.

Going to the Globe was a strange experience, a mixture of a very good production, people watching, and enjoying being a tiny part of tourist London. What I wouldn’t give to have an evening at the original Globe in the early 1600’s………… now that would be something.