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.

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Jane Eyre. National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic at Hull New Theatre. 28-09-17

The ensemble. NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

Jane Eyre is one of the best loved heroines of a nineteenth century novel. She has been read and admired ever since she first appeared in 1837. She is strong minded and plain and she suffers deeply, overcoming obstacles to find happiness, allowing nothing to stop her. It’s a formula which has stood the test of time and writers have been using Charlotte Bronte’s template ever since. If you are going to put the book on stage in front of a sharp audience who know the book backwards (as one elderly lady sitting near me said when refusing a programme) then you had better get it right. Add to that a mass of plot and a novel which is written in the first person and you have a big job on your hands. Above all the central character needs a strong performance and we must never feel that we have come to the theatre to see a 3D version of a Sunday night classic television serial. There is nothing wrong with those if they are well done- and Jane Eyre has been quite beautifully put on screen- but they have no place in a theatre. It’s a big ask.

The National Theatre/Bristol Old Vic production has been brought back thanks to the huge success it had three years ago. It was devised by the original cast, with the director Sally Cookson, and its biggest achievement is its theatricality and playfulness. The set immediately brings to mind a children’s playground. It is a series of ladders, slopes and platforms and all of it is used at speed with great accuracy during the course of the play. There are some lovely moments of pure theatre throughout like the one that opens the production where baby Jane’s birth is announced and the baby is unfurled into a dress which is then put onto Nadia Clifford who plays Jane. This is storytelling and we are asked to become complicit in whatever the cast show us, whether it is a moving carriage journey conjured up from the co-ordinated movement of cast members standing shoulder to shoulder and stamping their feet or a dog who is nothing more than a flexible whippy tail in the hand of Paul Mundell. Nothing more is needed other than an actor who gives his whole self to the task so that we believe in him. The music is lovely, with some beautifully sung songs from Melanie Marshall as Rochester’s poor deranged first wife and it was a very moving device to show her wandering the stage in a blood red dress like a ghost. It made Bertha a constant presence- as she should be. I wasn’t as sure about the way Rochester was portrayed. This was absolutely nothing to do with Tim Delap’s performance, perhaps more to do with the Rochester I already had in my head.

Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

Nadia Clifford (Jane Eyre) NT Jane Eyre Tour 2017. Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Of course at the centre of everything is Jane herself. If that character doesn’t work then nothing else matters. A lot is asked of Nadia Clifford, both emotionally and technically. She gives us a fierce, uncompromising Jane who knows her own mind. She has a lot of injustice to be fierce about and we watch her grow up painfully and learn to master herself and grow in dignity and strength. It is a fine performance. I loved the way she was both fully emotionally present and also technically precise. There was a lovely moment towards the end of the first half where she was put in an adult dress for the first time and her whole stance and demeanour changed without a word being said. There is a lot going on in this production around her and it needed great strength and presence to keep us focused on her. Sadly she was unable to continue thanks to injury so Jenny Johns took over as Jane for the second half. This was fascinating to watch as she made the part work in a completely different way. The two actresses are very different physical types and this was a more measured, elegant Jane which I enjoyed for its own sake, as well as being full of admiration for the fact that she was able to slot into a very technical, fast production without missing a beat.

I loved this show and I am grateful for the chance to see it so close to home thanks to Hull being City of Culture. Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels and I would not have been slow to tell you if I hadn’t.

Man and Superman. National Theatre Live Relay. 14-05-15

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Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes. Production photograph by Alastair Muir.

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

Watching the National Theatre’s wonderful production of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman reminded me of just why I have loved Bernard Shaw since I first read Caesar and Cleopatra at the age of fifteen. His writing still sings and jumps off the page at you, as modern and edgy as anything being written now. Man and Superman was first staged in 1905 and that is genuinely hard to believe. It is utterly unlike anything else that was being written at the time, original and even strange in some ways, especially when the Don Juan in Hell act is performed as part of it, which happened for the first time in 1915. I hope that nobody ever suggests leaving it out again after seeing this new production. This is a big, bold, confident play- like its author- and it has some penetrating things to say about society, love and marriage that are as relevant today as they ever were. It is sharp, wise and very funny. Yes it is long- maybe too long- but if it is done properly the time flies by. It’s a three course meal laid out on stage rather than the luxury stage canapes that we have become accustomed to snacking on. Shaw knew how to entertain and amuse an audience and get his points home by stealth and he is a master of setting out an argument clearly. For a long time his plays were unfashionable and it is good to see him back where he belongs in recent years- right at the centre of things.

Jack Tanner is a very long part and you watch Ralph Fiennes’ masterful performance in awe at what he is doing. He is in complete control of both the character’s arguments within the text and the character- something that is essential with Shaw and by no means easy to manage. Shaw’s characters always have a viewpoint and that is as important as their reality. I just don’t know how Ralph Fiennes did it- but I daresay being one of the finest stage actors of his generation helped. With a life force like that on stage beside them it was a tough job for the other actors to stand their ground but I’m glad to say they did. Indira Varma’s Anne Whitefield is going to be a good match for Jack- she understands him and will give as good as she gets, and the final scene where she finally achieves what she has always wanted was beautifully played between the two of them. She is a strong, beautiful presence on stage and I am always glad to see her. There was some very funny, stylish work from Tim McMullen as the brigand Mendoza and The Devil which made a perfect wry, laid back contrast to Jack. He had some of the best lines and made the most of them. I was very pleased to see Faye Castelow making the most of a nice part on a big stage having seen her give a storming performance as Ruth Ellis in our local theatre. Violet has a strong character and some lovely moments and she more than held her own. Elliot Barnes-Worrall was a lovely chirpy contrast to everyone else as Straker, just as he should be, and it was good to see Christine Kavanagh giving a very well judged, stylish performance as Mrs Whitefield. The whole play was very well cast.

The director Simon Godwin has done a wonderful job, although I have a feeling that Ralph Fiennes was on fire to do this one and didn’t need much advice. Having said that I’m sure that one of the reasons that everyone else didn’t get lost in Jack Tanner’s slipstream and Shaw’s arguments were able to shine so brightly was thanks to his good sense and advice. The updated setting was very cleverly managed. It had a timeless feel in spite of the updating- nothing grated with the dialogue at all- and the costumes were particularly carefully judged. The design fills the stage of the Lyttelton with a breathtaking simplicity in the Don Juan in Hell scene and never gets in the way. Rightly, Bernard Shaw was a great fan of his own work and I think he would have absolutely loved this. I don’t wonder it is sold out. If they tour it I shall see it again- sometimes a live relay just isn’t enough.

War Horse. National Theatre at the New London. SJT screening.

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Joey and Topthorn square off. Photo by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg 2011 London cast.

War Horse opened at the National Theatre in 2007 and since then it has been seen by five million people all over the world. Few theatre productions have managed to touch a nerve in this way and become nationally and internationally known. Few productions are as cleverly thought through and emotionally well judged. It is a simple story of the relationship between a horse, Joey, and Arthur, the young lad who trains him and brings him on. When the first world war breaks out Joey is sold by Arthur’s father and sent out to the front as an officer’s horse in 1914.  Arthur enlists in his turn with the simple, heart-rending, hope of finding his horse and bringing him home. I will not spoil the ending as there are still several people who have never seen it, and when the original book was written by a fearless and unsentimental writer like Michael Morpurgo a happy ending is by no means guaranteed. Suffering is a different matter.

Five million people can’t be wrong. This is an extraordinary piece of theatre, perfectly judged and precisely performed, which never descends into the mush of clichés that it could so easily have been. Everybody talks about the puppets, and no wonder. Handspring puppets took two years to develop them in the workshop at the National (the best investment the NT ever made) and the two full size horses, Joey and Topthorn, each operated by a team of three puppeteers, live and breathe on stage- it is as simple as that. Every nuance of the horses behaviour is there. You can feel their fear and pain and understand their every thought. I cried for them, and I mean sobbed- not just a polite tear down the cheek. I don’t do that often.

I have seen a lot of good theatre and been very moved by it without weeping, but there are personal reasons why War Horse moved me so profoundly that I still wouldn’t be able to describe it to you properly without tears. My grandfather was a Yorkshire farmer who worked with shire horses all his life and he was out at the front still working with the horses whose job was to pull his battalion’s field artillery guns from position to position. They did this in the worst conditions possible without the stabling and feed that was really required. It was heart breaking for horse men like my grandfather. The war began for the horses with insane cavalry charges straight into the fire of the German machine guns, with predictable results, and descended into long, grinding suffering. There are records of whole groups of men lining up to pay their last respects to a well loved battalion horse and sometimes a horse had to be shot simply because it had sunk down into the mud up to its neck. 160,000 British horses were requisitioned in the first six weeks of war and in the end they were fetched from all over the world. It is estimated that eight million of them died. The more research you do the worse it gets.

I am not really old enough to have that kind of direct personal connection with the great war but my mother was a very late baby and my grandfather lived healthily until he was ninety so I was lucky. I also rode a lot when I was younger and anyone who knows horses well will understand how intolerable it must have been for animals of their temperament.

It gives me great satisfaction that it is a piece of theatre that has provided the tribute that those horses and the men who cared so much about them deserved. It is a universal story of suffering and reconciliation, a new version of the ancient quest narrative. We won’t see its like again.

Travelling Light. National Theatre. Leeds Grand Theatre. 24-03-12

Damien Molony as Motl Mendl and Lauren O’Neill as Anna Mazowiecka. Production photograph by Johan Persson.

Nicholas Wright’s new play Travelling Light takes us back to the Jewish origins of early American cinema and into the heart of a small shtetl community. It is about the birth of storytelling in cinema- the moment when people moved beyond simply amazing people by showing them footage of themselves and their neighbours and realised that they themselves could make things happen on screen. It was a revelation which led to an explosion of creativity and a new obsession for the waiting audiences and it changed the lives of those who were the pioneers of the new industry. It is a tremendous subject.

Antony Sher as Jacob Bindl and Damien Molony as Motl Mendl. Production photo by Johann Persson.

Like many of the original Jewish cinema pioneers and moguls Motl Mendl, (Damien Molony) the young hero of Travelling Light, is restless and dynamic and he has ideas which are far too big for him to be able to stay close to his roots. He needs money to fulfil his ambitions which Jacob Bindl (Antony Sher) a wealthy timber merchant, is able to provide on condition that he stays at home. To the bafflement and admiration of his small community he uses the money to start to tell their stories on screen, using his neighbours as actors and the shtetl as a setting. The whole community becomes involved, too involved, and his creativity becomes compromised. Jacob wants to direct and he also wants the woman who is at the centre of Motl’s life and creativity. The situation is never going to be resolved without great cost and sacrifice.

Damien Molony as Motl Mendl and Lauren O’Neill as Anna Mazowiecka. Production photo by Johan Persson.

The production is beautiful to look at. Bob Crowley’s design gives us a realistic Shtetl community and Bruno Poet’s lighting design is atmospheric and haunting. A giant screen across the back allows us to see film extracts which can be both touching and funny. The supporting cast do an excellent job of peopling the Shtetl with warmth and humour, and make a believable community. Lauren O’Neil has a nice dignified presence as Anna, Motl’s love, and Antony Sher is a wonderful actor who has no difficulty whatsoever in giving us Jacob, with all his warmth, enthusiasm and irritating contradictions and interferences. The stand out performance, however, comes from Damien Molony as Motl. The part needs a young actor who is dynamic and full of conviction as the play relies on the audience buying into his passion for cinema and willing him to succeed, and it has found one. This is only Damien Molony’s second stage role, after a stunning stage debut as Giovanni in Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and he is a joy to watch. He is able to play strong emotion with great economy and truth and that is a real gift.

There is a lot to admire about this production then, and a lot that is interesting and engaging. My only sadness comes from the fact that some of Nicholas Wright’s writing doesn’t quite match up to the quality of the production which it is given by Nicholas Hytner as director, and his company. The ending is a little rushed, with too much information given rather too suddenly, and the device of having an older Motl looking back at his early life isn’t quite made to work well enough. It is not bad writing- I would hate anyone to think that- but I feel quite strongly that this story had the potential to be a great play rather than a good one which was helped along by a talented cast, a clever production and a beautiful stage design and that is a shame.

Swallows and Amazons. National Theatre/ Children’s Touring Partnership/Bristol Old Vic at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Celia Adams as Nancy Blackett and Sophie Waller as Peggy Blackett. Production photograph by Simon Annand.

Arthur Ransome’s children’s classic Swallows and Amazons, and its eleven successors have some very devoted fans.  I am one of them, so when I sat down in a packed expectant West Yorkshire Playhouse to see Helen Edmundson and Neil Hannon’s new adaptation I was taking a bit of a risk. I was in danger of spoiling some very cherished memories of books which I read over and over again, no matter how glowing the reviews have been. I needn’t have worried. This is a beautifully judged piece of family theatre (something that we don’t get enough of outside of pantomime) and the writing treads exactly the right path, utilising both a gentle irony which never descends into parody and showing great respect for the seriousness of the children’s imaginative life. As an adult, we are allowed to see and understand what is really going on by the use of gentle single line interventions that make us smile as we read between the lines, and as children we are drawn into the powerfully evocative imaginative life of the children on stage, willing them to succeed.

Complex, mature and imaginative outdoor play is something that few children are given the freedom to do today. They are constantly watched over by “barbarians” of one kind or another and it would be an unusual kind of father today who would send a telegram like,”Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers, won’t drown.” Even when Ransome wrote Swallows and Amazons back in 1930 there was an element of fantasy about this. The books have always been most read and most loved by bookish children who would never have been given, or coped with, the kind of freedom that the children in the book are allowed. Ransome wrote the book for the original Swallows, his friend’s children who he sailed with on the lakes, and so it is grounded in a real sense of place and an understanding of children.

The Swallows and Amazons. Production photograph by Simon Annand.

The masterstroke of this production is that it understands that this kind of imaginative play is at the heart of the book, however real the sailing and camping which provides the setting for the games may be.  From beginning to end it is shot though with playful flights of fantasy. Given a few bits of wood, a pole, some rope, a ribbon and a blue flag the swallows can sail across the stage on a tiny trolley. The puppet cormorants from Cormorant island can fly on wings made from black plastic, an owl which is nothing more than a few feathers attached to the ends of an actor’s fingers can swoop down, and the reeds of the Amazon river materialise from two constantly shifting rows of poles. There are so many examples of this kind of invention, invention which only works thanks to the accuracy of the mime and some split second timing, that you are able to leave reality behind and lose yourself in the story which is being told. It is a great piece of ensemble work. There is a moment where Titty dives, with graceful confidence, into thin air and is caught by a row of waiting arms which is quite magical. This is a classic drama trust exercise and it sums up how well this company is working together.

Akiya Henry as Titty. Production photograph by Simon Annand.

The children are all played by adults, not that you would notice, and they work perfectly together. The best compliment that I can pay them is that they gave me the confidence to leave behind the cherished images in my head which I have carried for many years and allow them to create something new. All of them came to life in believable and strong performances which steered entirely clear of sentimentality by sheer force of conviction. John Walker in particular has some lines and attitudes which are deeply unfashionable today. He is badly hurt by being called a liar and has a high moral code which he adheres to and Richard Holt manages to play this aspect of him without ever making him look priggish. Katie Moore has fine comic timing and a lively energy which saves Susan from being just a boring little wannabee housewife. Akiya Henry was very touching as Titty. She is by far my favourite character in the books, quiet, sensitive and vulnerable, but by no means a wimp, and I felt for her. Roger is the one Swallow who I would have approached differently but Stewart Wright does what is asked of him very nicely and the audience loved him. Nancy (Celia Adams) and Peggy (Sophie Waller), the two Amazon pirates are a delight, exactly as I would have wanted them. There is great poignancy in both performances as well as conviction. They are not really causing mayhem and destruction- they need to get back for their tea and they adore their uncle who usually spoils them rotten- but we can be well aware of that while at the same time completely believing in the seriousness of their piratical ambitions. The clarity of this dual viewpoint is the payback for having adult actors playing the roles rather than children.

The direction, by Tom Morris, is pacy and clever and the music, by Neil Hannon, is simple and catchy and full of atmosphere. The Amazon pirates are given the kind of song that they deserve and they make the most of it. There is some lovely work from the whole company throughout in the background as well as some nicely sung solos and some lovely harmonies.

I am not going to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the book but it was an absolute joy to sit in the middle of seven hundred and fifty people who were relishing the chance to be part of what was happening on stage and roaring their support. And no, it wasn’t just the children………….

A Woman Killed with Kindness. National Theatre. 19-07-11.

A Woman Killed with Kindness is perhaps not the greatest play of its time, and certainly not the most poetic, but it is tough and hard hitting and deserves to be seen four hundred years after it was written in 1603, which represents a considerable achievement for its writer Thomas Heywood. He claimed to have “had either an entire hand or at least a main finger” in 220 plays and while this may seem incredible to us, as the programme to the National Theatre’s new production points out, nobody questioned it at the time. He was a man of the theatre for three decades during one of the most exciting and wonderful periods that the stage has ever had and he was known among his colleagues as a happy and hardworking company member. It seems like an enviable life.

Photograph by Nigel Norrington.

A Woman Killed with Kindness is a domestic thriller, an exploration of the lives of two women and the toll that their predicament as powerless subjugated women in a male dominated society exacts on them. It is a heavy price for both. Anne Frankford is being married in the opening scene of the play to John Frankford, a man who is decent but cold and distant, a man who finds it hard to respond to her overtures of love. Anne is praised for being obedient and dutiful, but this proves not to be enough to sustain her. When John’s unscrupulous friend Wendoll responds to his friend’s generosity in giving him a home by starting a passionate affair with Anne she is an easy target, lonely and starved of affection. All hell breaks loose and this is what forms the basis of the rest of the plot. The story of Susan, the reclusive sister of a neighbouring landowner forms a counterpoint to all this emotional turmoil. She is bearing the burden of her brother’s debts and violent behaviour and gets no thanks for it. She is expected to subjugate herself to her brothers needs without any thought on anyone’s part of her own needs and desires. Both women cave in under the strain of society’s expectations. While Anne ends up starving herself to death out of misery and guilt, Susan is left to endure the living death of a loveless marriage in order to pay off her brother’s debts.  Her bitter recognition of where the guilt really lies as she finally meets Anne for the first time and watches her die gives the play both its final kick of a last line and its title.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian.

This production is very much a director’s vision of the play and Katie Mitchell, who is a great director, has done a fine job. The central concept works beautifully. The action is set in Spring 1919 in the worlds of two English country houses, those belonging to John Frankford and Charles Mountford. We see both houses next to each other at all times, in a stunningly designed and very beautiful set by Lizzie Clachan and Vikki Mortimer. The action is continuous in both, fading to silence and dimmed lighting as the focus changes from scene to scene. It is fast, atmospheric and claustrophobic, a watchful world of keeping up appearances policed by servants who see everything. This central vision means that we never forget that the two women are linked although they never meet and when the final line is spoken it is like the final piece of jigsaw being put in place. There is some fine company work as we see seasons change and some telling movement work which allows the characters to speak without words. Pawns in someone else’s game the two women are lifted and put in position like china dolls. The timing and accuracy of all this takes your breath away. Katie Mitchell always expects a lot of her actors technically and this production is no exception. In some ways it is theatre as a well oiled machine, running like clockwork.

Photo by Nigel Norrington.

There is a price to pay for these gains. The characters are curiously distant from each other and while this is a fascinating and engaging production, it doesn’t break your heart as it should. There is high emotion here, and some very good acting, particularly from Paul Ready as John Frankford, but somehow it seems to get a little lost in the bigger picture which the director is building as the play rumbles on inevitably to its bitter end. The characters sometimes seem more like chess pieces rather than real flesh and blood human beings and this is a pity. There are some fine moments however, and when John is nerving himself outside his bedroom door to interrupt his wife with her lover and blow apart his whole life he is genuinely moving. Heywood also gives him one of the few pieces of fine poetry in the play. Too little of the verse shone through like this moment.

“That it were possible
To undo things done, to call back yesterday,
That time could turn up his swift sandy glass
To untell the days, and to redeem these hours.”

Considering how much of the plot centres on passion and eroticism this is a curiously cold and bloodless account of the play, while it remains completely fascinating and beautiful to look at.