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.

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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.

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.

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.