Wonderland. Live relay from Hampstead Theatre. 26-07-14

Wonderland

Production photograph: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian.

Wonderland, Beth Hall’s new play about the 1984 miners strike has been given a wonderful production by the company at Hampstead Theatre. It needed some stagecraft to do the subject justice, as it is a huge canvas which a lesser playwright could have easily lost in muddle and cliché. By focusing in on a small group of men and allowing us to get to know their close knit community in the pit we are able to feel the personal heartbreak as their lives are torn apart. The writing is clear and very well structured and the action moves along very swiftly. Points are made and motivations are laid bare with great economy and compassion. This is an ambitious play with a very big heart. It needs to be seen in the North of England.

There are some excellent performances. I was very moved by Gunnar Cauthery as Spud, a reluctant scab, and by Paul Brennan as Colonel Deputy- a man worth far more than any of the smug, suited figures who are intent on bringing him down and taking away his livelihood. It is important that we see a slightly softer side to the implacable government in the person of Peter Walker and Andrew Havill makes him real and conflicted. Two young apprentice pitmen, Jimmy and Malcolm, are very well played by Ben-Ryan Davies and David Moorst and we see them learn the brutal facts of life after an idealistic start. Having said that, this is truly a company show which needs split second timing and physical skill and it is this which impresses most.

The company has been given the best chance it could possibly have to shine by Edward Hall’s direction and a spectacular set by designer Ashley Martin Davis which matches the ambition of the play and takes us both below ground and into the corridors of power. This is done by a combination of theatrical bravura as a pit lift descends, or the simplicity of a single table with a decanter of whisky on it rising up. It is wonderful to watch, often lit by little more than the headlamps of the miners and the music, strong traditional folk such as The Blackleg Miner, is sung with great feeling.

This is proper theatre, real and dynamic, a team working with enormous skill and talent to tell a part of our national story which should never be forgotten. It’s to Hampstead theatre’s credit- and to Edward Hall’s credit personally- that a company has been gathered who are able to allow a small theatre with big dreams to make work which our National companies can envy.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Propeller at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield. 2-2-14

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Puck and the fairies. Production photograph by Dominic Clemence.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Each time that I have seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream I have been enchanted by it. I have been lucky enough to see only good productions, and one great one by Ninagawa’s company, which obviously helps, but whenever it is performed it remains a beautiful, magical play with wonderful poetry and great comedy which still works after four hundred years. You come away feeling better about the world and yourself after seeing it. All is well…….. and even if it isn’t, as Puck says in the epilogue, it was only a dream. Nothing is going to harm you.

Propeller’s production of the Dream has been described as “touched by genius”, not something that you hear often in reviews, and it has travelled all over the world. It is a play which fits them like a glove. They are my kind of theatre company, all male, daring, innovative and charming with a strong understanding of Shakespeare’s writing underpinning everything that they do. Like my heroes from back in the nineteen eighties, the English Shakespeare Company, they are not to everybody’s taste, but they are justly acclaimed and much-loved by their large audiences.

Creating stage magic is a lot more difficult than it looks. It requires pinpoint accuracy and confidence and the company work together beautifully to create another world. The fairies are capricious, androgynous beings who also have a wicked sense of fun. You wouldn’t trust them. The forest is their world and they are in control of anyone who strays within its boundaries. Mortals are fools and fair game, to be played with for a while so long as nobody is permanently harmed. Pain is never final. Their magic is real but only a plaything of the night. Puck is quite beautifully played by Joseph Chance. He draws us in, creating a real rapport with the audience, his joyous movement and playfulness hiding something deliciously dangerous. The quartet of lovers, played by Arthur Wilson, Richard Pepper, Dan Wheeler and Matthew McPherson were both heartfelt and hilarious and their fight scene resulted in the kind of applause that many a play doesn’t get at the curtain call. James Tucker and Daryl Brockis were both regal and unsettling as Titania and Oberon, you would not cross them. The mechanicals made the most of what is a surefire piece of comedy, maybe the only Shakespearean comedy scene which still works in exactly the same way as it did for its first audiences. I particularly liked Matthew McPherson as Snug- he was so not a lion. Raar! Having said all this the great joy of Propeller is the way that they work together as a company, particularly when it comes to movement.

Edward Hall’s direction was faultless. He knows both the play and his company so well that he can take risks and ask a tremendous amount of them both while remaining true to its spirit and deliver something which is fresh and surprising that doesn’t put a foot wrong. The set by Michael Pavelka is simple and beautiful, loose knit pale fabric drapes and a high, slim balcony made from a collection of various white-painted chairs which is reached by step ladders on either side of the stage and hidden side entrances upstage. It is another world made from pale whites, creams and greys.

I really loved this. We are lucky to have this kind of classical theatre company which takes the golden theatre age of our country and remakes it with such joy and understanding, allowing it to stay alive for us now.



The Winter’s Tale. Propeller Theatre Company at Sheffield Lyceum.

Karl Davies as the young shepherd, Gunnar Cauthery as Mopsa, Tony Bell as Autolycus and Richard Dempsey as Dorcas. Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

The production of The Winter’s Tale which Propeller Theatre Company are touring is filled with life and energy, visually beautiful, tightly controlled and at the same time full of expression and daring. This is a strange mixture but one which works well for a play which spreads over two distinct worlds. It takes a very skilled director and a very talented company to take a delicate and unusual play by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake without doing it serious harm but that is exactly what Propeller has done. There is huge fun to be had, but at any point the production is able to pull back, change the mood, and give you the pathos and quiet melancholy which the play needs. Propeller is an ensemble company of actors who work together a lot and know each other well and it shows.

Robert Hands as Leontes and Vince Leigh as Paulina. Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

The biggest problem in any production of The Winter’s Tale is making sense of Leonte’s utterly senseless jealousy. Of course irrational jealousy exists, we all know that, but in order to really feel the power and redemption in Leonte’s hard won wisdom at the end of the play we need to be shown that he is more than a deeply headstrong and blinkered, ultimately unlikable man. This was the first production that I have seen where I sat there genuinely moved and glad for him at the end of the play, knowing that his suffering was over and, against all the odds, he had the happy ending which he didn’t deserve. This is down to Robert Hands, who gives a great performance as Leontes, understated and truthful. Leonte’s language is vicious and extreme enough and it doesn’t need to be overdone. He truly is “a feather for every wind that blows”, as much of a mystery to himself as he is to everybody around him. It is also a tribute to the skill of Nicholas Asbury, who gives a finely judged performance as Polixenes which allows us to see exactly why Leontes might be so terribly mistaken, even though we can clearly see that there is no infidelity going on. This understanding carries us though to the enlightenment and reconciliation at the end of the play and makes it very moving.

Richard Dempsey as Hermione. Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

There is some very delicate playing from Richard Dempsey as Hermione, a willowy, brutally treated figure who has great dignity and poise. This is a very difficult task for a male actor to find those qualities as a woman given that there is no humour to hide behind. It has to be right and it is. The appearance of Hermione as the statue at the end of the play is achieved by a breathtakingly simple piece of magical misdirection from the whole company and nothing else. Beautifully done. It is particularly impressive that he could also tear his way through the scenes in Arcadia as Dorcas, along with Gunnar Cauthery as Mopsa. The two of them have an absolute ball together, the scenes are set at a summer rock festival, and they are dressed to kill singing and dancing up a storm along with Tony Bell’s slightly dangerous faded rock star Autolycus, able to raise a laugh with a single word. Completely delightful.

Karl Davies as Young Shepherd and John Dougall as Old Shepherd. Production photograph by Manuel Harlan.

It is not often that an audience gets to see two completely different aspects of what an actor can do within a single production and this is one of the joys of an ensemble like Propeller. It reminded me of the great days of the English Shakespeare Company and you won’t get higher praise from me than that. There was even a perfect part for one of the mainstays of that company, John Dougall, who played the old shepherd, a nice mix of comedy and pathos, and I couldn’t have been happier to see him there. The character of Paulina fared less well, in spite of a controlled and dignified performance from Vince Leigh. It is a great part and I think perhaps that there is a particular kind of female strength and authority about Paulina that may be very hard for any male actor to find without showing too much of their own natural male strength and unbalancing the performance. The doubling of Mamillius and Perdita is very clever. After the death of Mamillius we see the rest of the play, in a sense, through his eyes and Ben Allen gives us two charming and delicate performances.

The set for the Sicilian court scenes is wistful and elegant, shining polished steel walls lit by candles on long thin floor stands, watched by a giant silver moon, and the costumes are stylish and well judged. This is vital, especially for the cross dressing roles in an all male cast, and Michael Pavelka  has done an excellent job.

I came away from this production in awe of a company who are able to really get to the heart of what theatre is about. They are led by a wonderfully talented director in Edward Hall who understands how Shakespeare works and how to gather a group of actors and weld them together into a company with the talent to take risks and get away with it in order to shine a new light on plays which have more in them than you would ever believe. The plays can take it- so long as it is done with respect and a sure footed sense of what works and what doesn’t. Propeller has built a body of work that demands respect now and long may they continue.

And finally- I just loved the farting sheep. Baaaa!