The Absence of War. Sheffield Crucible. 21-02-15

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Gyuri Sarossy, Reece Dinsdale and Barry McCarthy. Production photograph by Mark Douet.

Twenty three years ago I saw the original production of The Absence of War as part of David Hare’s trilogy about the three great offices of state at the National Theatre. That trilogy was a major event- a bravura attempt to say something about the state of the nation on a grand scale, something that theatre rarely attempts. It is a play based on Neil Kinnock’s final election campaign- carefully researched by David Hare in great detail and then developed into a play which looks beyond that specific setting to find some home truths about politics in general. The chance to look back at it so long afterwards, with a general election campaign just underway is fascinating. It begs two questions; now that we have the benefit of hindsight did David Hare get it right and twenty three years later, have things changed?

The revival at Sheffield Crucible certainly gives the play the best chance it could possibly hope for. The space fits it better than the Olivier ever did. It is big enough to remind us that we are watching national events and intimate enough to draw us in and allow us to see the personal struggles involved. Some good decisions have been made, not least the decision to make George Jones the northerner I think he should always have been, and there are some fine touches in the staging. This play really needs a good director as personal events are taking place within a public setting which needs to be laid out for us and the action needs to move fast so that we feel the urgency of an election campaign. Jeremy Herrin has done an excellent job. I particularly loved the conference climax at the end of the first half and the clever use of live video.

Reece Dinsdale is really impressive as George. The crucial moment where he tries to articulate his socialist principles in front of an audience and falters- in spite of the fact that his beliefs are sincere and strongly held- was beautifully played and I enjoyed the scene where he is hijacked by a hostile interviewer and loses his temper. I like nothing better than seeing a small part played in a way that allows you to understand a character, even when given very little in the script to go on, and Helen Ryan did that in spades playing an elderly hard line socialist who is still very much in the game and ready to make waves if she is allowed to. Gyuri Sarossy was great as the shadow chancellor Malcolm. He is both loathsome and also completely understandable. He just wants to win and he knows that this will not happen with George as party leader. The confrontation in the aircraft factory where he and George finally have it out and covert hostility is allowed out into the open was perfectly done and drew a well deserved round of applause.

So did David Hare get it right and have things changed? In an age of political cynicism when the instant reaction to George’s final declaration is perhaps one of wry laughter rather than weary despair the play has certainly become a period piece. It says something about it’s own time which will always remain relevant and perceptive, but what really makes it stand the test of time is the way that it resonates with what we see in our political system today. When George talks about money being a simple master to serve, as everybody knows what it is and it is easy to evaluate, but that justice is far harder as nobody really agrees exactly what that is this says something universal. It was true then, it is true now and it probably always will be. That is fine writing. Telling the truth about society will always hit a nerve as people don’t change.

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Krapp’s Last Tape. Sheffield Crucible Studio. 03-07-14

A Sheffield Theatres ProductionKrapp's Last Tape

Richard Wilson as Krapp. Production photograph by Mark Douet.

Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”

When you walk into the space it takes only a few seconds to register that the Crucible’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is going to be something very special. In the centre of the darkened space is a slowly revolving shed, perfectly detailed inside and out and cleverly designed so that we can see everything that we need to within its chaotic, cramped interior from all angles as it turns. It is surrounded by low audience benches and a ring of small round speakers suspended at knee height. Those of us at the front are within a few feet of the action. Krapp is already inside sitting in front of a battered reel to reel tape recorder- of course he is as he spends hours in there, alone with his thoughts. It is an astonishing setting for the play, created by Alex Lowde, I doubt that you will ever see a better one, so much detail and thought has gone into getting it exactly right. It almost feels as though you have already seen the drama in full as you peer in at Krapp through the windows. Becket conceived his plays as a whole theatrical package of light, sound, setting and text and that is exactly what you get from this wonderful production. Richard Wilson, who plays Krapp, must have been thrilled when he first saw it. If it wasn’t so very unfair to a fine performance I would say that half his job was already done when he sat down inside it. It is also quite beautifully and subtly lit by Hansjorg Schmidt and that really matters for this play.

Krapp has been putting his thoughts down on tape for a very long time and he has been left with a record of his younger self. This is what he has been steeling himself to explore on this, his 69th birthday. During the course of the play he listens to the tape that he made when he was 39. As we watch a bitter, disappointed man whose life has been unfulfilled listen to his younger, still hopeful self, we hear one of his opportunities for happiness being missed. It is a sombre business. Beckett is a bold, uncompromising writer who leaves us no room for consolation. We all share Krapp’s predicament as the spool of our life slowly runs out and those of us who are old enough can feel the pang of our own hurts and missed opportunities as we watch him struggle with his past. In an age where many lives are being recorded on social media in ever more detail, every meal photographed, every hope set down, every slight revenged, Beckett’s play, written over fifty years ago, has great resonance. In the future many people will be able to look back at their young selves in what may well be horrifying detail. You can’t rewrite your past to suit your own ideas of what you would have liked it to be when the truth is staring you in the face. In allowing himself to face his younger self Krapp performs an act of great bravery and self examination.

Beckett is a very precise, economical writer who has provided every detail needed, but he also makes great demands on his actor. The clues are all there in the text and the stage directions, but it is up to the actor to bring them to the surface and show the thought processes of the man. Richard Wilson does this impeccably. You can see the thoughts chasing across his face and this makes every moment quite mesmerising to watch. I don’t think that there was a single moment where I didn’t feel that I knew what was going on inside his head.

Polly Findlay, Alex Lowde and above all Richard Wilson as Krapp have joined forces to give us, quite simply, as good an account of Samuel Beckett’s great writing as you are ever likely to see. A young man who left the theatre alongside me was saying to his friends, “That was quite remarkable” and that is exactly the right word. This is a piece of true theatre that leaves you a different person after seeing it, a short, intense time spent in another place. You had to be there…….. and I will never forget that I was.

Company. Sheffield Crucible. 14-12-11

Photograph: copyright Donald Cooper Photostage.

Bobby is about to turn 35 and beginning to wonder whether it may be time to find a new way forward and settle down. His friends are telling him so and he is becoming tired of  being a welcome guest at their homes, watching as they snipe, love, fall apart, and demonstrate by their example what is so wonderful and so appalling about being close to someone else. He has enjoyed being a handsome young bachelor in a big city able to play the field. It seems both a lot to lose and a lot to gain. He needs some answers. When he arrives home and finds out from his answer machine that his friends are planning a surprise party for him he starts on a process of discovery that ends with one of the most joyous songs ever written for musical theatre. Some have complained that Company has no plot, but of course that process of discovery which happens inside Bobby’s head is the plot. It is a collage of moments and memories which he looks back on as he waits, memories which he uses to make sense of where he has been in the past, where he is now, and where he might be going. His journey is one which we all have to make, one way or another, as we reach middle age and that is why a show that is forty years old can still touch our hearts and resonate so strongly. That is more or less the point in life that Sondheim himself had reached at the time he wrote it so he knew what he was talking about and this shows very clearly in the insight, experience and irony which he brought to the lyrics. The score is a virtuoso display of different styles and moods and contains a series of outstanding numbers from the gentle, introspective Sorry Grateful, one of the best songs ever written about marriage, to Another Hundred People which is both a hymn to New York and to the life which Bobby is afraid to leave behind. All of the numbers are an integral part of the storytelling and take the action of the show forward, showing us the characters rather than just commenting on them. Sondheim makes enormous demands on his performers, and not just musically. You can’t just sing his songs, you need to live them.

Photograph: copyright Donald Cooper Photostage.

For the 2011 revival at the Crucible theatre in Sheffield the artistic director Daniel Evans has gathered an extraordinary cast to play the friends and lovers who surround Bobby. They are a true ensemble working together beautifully and the whole thing zips along with great style and pace, immaculate timing and clearly defined sharp changes of mood. He has cast himself as Bobby and given that he won an Olivier award and was nominated for a Tony for his performance as George Seurat in Sunday In The Park With George nobody is going to complain about that. A British actor who is nominated for a Tony in an American musical needs to be very good indeed and he is outstanding as Bobby. It is a demanding part which needs an actor with a great musical theatre voice, charm and an ability to draw us into his world. If we don’t understand Bobby and feel for him there really is no show there to watch. Daniel Evans brings great warmth and commitment to the role, allowing the audience to follow him as he painfully and tentatively learns what he needs to know. Being Alive is a great song which has to be earned. It is the culmination of everything that has gone before and when we watch him sing it we are as thrilled as he is to know that he has found his answer. It is a great climax to the show, as it should be.

Photograph: copyright Donald Cooper Photostage.

As for the rest of the cast their strength really is in the way they work together as an ensemble, especially in the number Side By Side, but there are also some great individual moments. For someone of Samantha Spiro’s talent Amy is a gift of a part and she is both funny and touching as well as nailing the technical difficulties of Getting Married Today. Lucy Montgomery has a nice feel for comedy too in the number Barcelona and Ian Gelder, Damien Humbley and David Birrell are beautifully touching in Sorry Grateful. Rosalie Craig is full of life and energy as Marta and she was able to paint a haunting picture of New York in Another Hundred People as well as give us a believable portrait of a young girl in love with the city that she is a tiny part of.

The production is set in the 1970’s, as it has to be, and the set, designed by Christopher Oram, is lovely to look at. Bobby’s stylish but rather soulless loft apartment has a panoramic view of the city and the Chrysler building, and it is surrounded by a period evocation of  a seventies disco floor.

This is as good a production of a classic American musical as you are likely to see. Hats off to the Crucible! It deserves to move on to the West End but if it doesn’t I shall enjoy being smug about the fact that we were the ones who got to see it up in Sheffield.

Othello. Sheffield Crucible. 24-09-11

Photo by Johann Persson.

While the play may be called Othello as a recognition that it is his tragedy it is Iago’s play and this has never been clearer than it is in Sheffield Crucible’s current production. Dominic West gives a masterly performance in the part. He is completely in control, playing the audience as well as Othello, able to bring out the audacious comedy in the part as well as the manipulative, carefully thought out evil which cares for nothing and nobody but himself. He watches and waits, eyes glittering, chooses his moment and strikes. His victim, Clarke Peters is a very moving Othello whose descent into jealousy and despair is very believable and human. There are things that you could wish to see from his performance which are not there, perhaps greater clarity in his verse speaking and a more magisterial  presence in the early scenes, but I am loath to criticise a performance of such honesty and commitment. The scenes between them where Iago is convincing Othello of Desdemona’s guilt are chilling and perfectly done. They have worked together extensively before and it shows.

Photo by Johann Persson

I also enjoyed Brodie Ross as Roderigo, a lovesick fool who is all too easy prey for Iago, and Gwilym Lee as Cassio, a good honourable man who just doesn’t watch his back quite enough. There are two outstanding female performances from Lily James as Desdemona and Alexandra Gilbreath as Emilia. Lily James is very beautiful, always a good start when you are playing Desdemona, but this is by no means her only asset. She is like a beautiful, delicate porcelain doll, all too easily broken, unable to comprehend what is happening to her until it is far too late and completely in thrall to her charismatic older husband. Emilia is also in thrall to her husband Iago. She has been taking his cruel jibes for too long, colluding in his evil without thinking too deeply about it, and hatred and love for him both run very close to the surface with her. It is a wonderful piece of reacting as we see her despising the bluff Yorkshire surface wit that Iago produces to entertain his mates, knowing all too well the man underneath. There is a whole marriage laid out  there, clearly visible, as she watches him with a mixture of admiration and contempt. When the destruction of her beloved Desdemona becomes the final straw her pent up anger and resentment are an unstoppable force.

This is a very faithful, traditional production set in the period it was written, with a beautifully lit set made of a starred tiled floor and crumbling grey stone walls. There is one particularly beautiful piece of lighting when the edges of the star on the floor are lit from above with great accuracy, defining a smaller central space. Lucy Carter the lighting designer has done a fine job, she has worked on a lot of ballet and opera and working on a great Shakespeare tragedy fits into that pattern perfectly. The direction by Daniel Evans is straightforward and unfussy allowing the actors and the showy but intimate space of the Crucible stage to do their work.

I hope that such a great start to her career pays dividends for Lily James, I enjoyed watching her as she seized her chance. I also hope that Dominic West stays on a big stage where he clearly belongs and my long admiration for Alexandra Gilbreath is confirmed. It is always good to see a great part which is somewhat underwritten get the performance which it deserves. This is not a flawless production then, but my goodness there is a lot to admire.

Hamlet. Sheffield Crucible. 23-09-10

John Simms Hamlet at Sheffield Crucible has attracted a lot of silly and sometimes snide comment ( along with the admiration) even from those who should know better,  so I shall start by saying that he is not a celebrity, he is a fine actor, and whether he is “better” or “worse” than David Tennant is totally irrelevant. Every actor who is faced with the challenge of playing Hamlet digs deep into themselves to find the character, someone who is all things to all men, and their take on the part comes from what they find there. It is John Simm’s first Shakespeare role and I saw only his second performance. He can be proud of himself without any doubt. His Hamlet is very much a bookish student rather than a sweet prince. He speaks the verse simply and directly, with a clear understanding of the text and is able to make it live. He is relatively old to play Hamlet, but he portrayed a man who is young, dynamic and vulnerable, a slight figure on stage who thinks quickly and intelligently, someone who is not easy to fool. I liked his relationship with Ophelia, particularly during the play within a play, and the obvious love that he had for her made the scene at her graveside very moving.

John Simm and John Nettles as Hamlet and Claudius. Production still by Tristram Kenton.

The rest of the cast provide solid support. John Nettles is an excellent Claudius. He begins with the kind of constant overbearing bonhomie that invariably hides something and during the course of the play, as this is stripped away, we see him realise that one way or another his sins are going to find him out. Hugh Ross is very good indeed, a warm, funny and irritating Polonius and a wise, sharp witted gravedigger. I also liked Colin Tierney very much as Horatio. He has great presence on stage and was a credible friend for Hamlet, more than you could say for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who I felt were a terrible misjudgement. Barbara Flynn’s Gertrude was nicely done, although I prefer a sharper, cleverer reading of the part. Michelle Dockery looked lovely, moved well and spoke the verse beautifully but I couldn’t help feeling, later in the play, that Ophelia’s madness doesn’t really sit well with that kind of composure and elegance. I have never yet seen an Ophelia who completely works for me, and I’m beginning to wonder if I ever will. Laertes is a nice part for a young actor, an uncomplicated, dynamic, loyal brother, and Tim Delap played it with just the right directness and attack. I was delighted by young Alexander Vlahos as Osric. It was a quirky little cameo, done with great style, which never descended into a comic turn.

John simm and Michelle Dockery as Hamlet and Ophelia (watching the players perform). Production still by Tristram Kenton.

The set was a simple, grey curling balcony with central doors and bookcases underneath and the empty space of the Crucible stage jutting out in front. The atmosphere seemed to be drawn from somewhere in Eastern Europe with wintry birch trees visible during the outdoor scenes and a cold dim light. The staging was sparse with little furniture and few props. This left the actors relying on the verse, which is good, especially in a wonderful, intimate space like the Crucible, but it did make for one or two awkward moments where they had to work a bit too hard to find variety and different levels. All the cast played the space beautifully, including all the audience on all three sides and drawing us in.. Malcolm Ranson, who must have directed more stage fights than I have had hot dinners by now, treated us to a terrific fight with foils at the end of the play. All in all it was a great evening. Hamlet is such a complex play that there are always gains and losses however you approach it. It will never be perfect and we shouldn’t expect it to be. That’s what makes it worth coming back over and over again.