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.

The Habit of Art. National Theatre. 19th December 2009.

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Alex Jennings and Richard Griffiths in The Habit of Art. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The first thing that I feel like saying about Alan Bennett’s latest play is that it is clever as a barrel load of monkeys, not clever in a self conscious way but understated and self assured. Here is someone writing who knows from experience what works and what doesn’t. There is no need for him to bang any drums about it. It shows a complete mastery of structure and contrast, something which is used to great comic effect. We have a company on stage who are rehearsing a play about a fictional meeting between Benjamin Britten and W H Auden, and we follow their trials and foibles as they struggle to get things right. There are lots of wry theatrical touches and irony as alongside this we see parts of the play which they are rehearsing during an early run through. The whole premise of The Habit of Art is a kind of double take. The audience are given an insight into the process of creativity by both the present day characters and by watching Britten and Auden as they meet again, following a long and acrimonious fall out, when Britten comes to ask for help with a libretto for a new opera, Death in Venice. The long scene in the second half where we are allowed to settle and watch Britten and Auden talk about life and creativity is beautifully done, and it gives the play a weight and focus which it would be lost without. I also found the scene where Britten is auditioning a choirboy as Auden talks with a rent boy very moving. Nobody else would write a scene like that and if they tried to it wouldn’t have the same effect. Watching the play I felt that a lifetimes experience had been distilled into the writing and only someone with that depth of experience could have done it, but at the same time it felt like a young man’s play, fizzing along with wit and energy. It is sometimes blissfully funny.

The actors have to keep up with Bennett’s pace and a lot is asked of them. Richard Griffiths (playing Fitz and W H Auden) and Alex Jennings (playing Henry and Benjamin Britten)  have to constantly come in and out of character as Auden and Britten to stop the run in order to question or complain and they both do this with complete conviction. You are never in any doubt the second that it happens who you are listening to. Alex Jennings is wonderful. You can see exactly why Henry has been cast as Britten but he is also a distinctly different character who watches what is going on with great concentration and sometimes frustration and he has his own back story. We don’t hear very much of it but his performance is so beautifully realised that we can fill in the gaps for ourselves. Adrian Scarborough, another fine actor who can do far more than is asked of him here, plays Donald and Humphrey Carpenter, and he is also delightful. Donald has been stuck with the thankless task of playing a “device” (Humphrey Carpenter wrote biographies of Auden and Britten and appears to comment on the action) and he needs lots of reassurance and patience from his stage manager Kay (Frances De La Tour) as he attempts to part build and fret about something which simply isn’t worth fretting about. He knows that and so does everybody else, but he has his moment- a typical Bennett one- at the start of the second half which I won’t spoil.

The way that artistry can be given to a person who seems unattractive and undeserving of it, that someone downright unpleasant can make work of great sensitivity and beauty, is an interesting subject. Peter Shaffer tackled it in Amadeus and I am glad that Alan Bennett turned his mind to it for this play. I just want him to keep writing forever.

The Black Album. National Theatre/Tara Arts at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 22-10-09

Jonathan Bonnici as Shahid Hasan and Tanya Franks as Deedee Osgood. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

I feel like talking about the set, which is never a good sign. This tale of a talented student, a good clean living young lad who is radicalised by a group of extremist muslims when he goes away to university at the time of the Rushdie fatwa didn’t quite work. The play describes his journey as he is led into the possibilities of violence before finally being horrified by how far his new friends are prepared to go and renouncing it in favour of pursuing love and developing his talent. The central performance by Jonathan Bonnici, a new young actor was spot on. He shone as Shahid and was engaging, truthful and natural but some of the other performances were too stereotyped and one or two were almost caricatures. This made for some nice comedy (especially from Robert Mountford as Shahid’s brother Chili) but it sometimes did a disservice to the subject matter. It was important that we should believe that this group of people were prepared to kill for their beliefs and understand why. We needed more rounded and believable characters to be able to do this fully.

I think most of the problems were caused by the script. Hanif Kureishi is a fine writer but he has not really succeeded in adapting his own material convincingly this time. It is too preachy and didactic, and sometimes comes near to cliche. I didn’t want to see them sitting around discussing issues- I wanted to know what made them tick. The old maxim of show, don’t tell. There was some very nice physical theatre woven into the story and it would have been interesting to see this developed more, the cast were talented movers and handled the speed of the production, the choreographed moves and the fast changes well.

There is an important play to be written about this subject and we need to see it, it’s an enormous pity that this wasn’t it. The setting was all there for it to happen. Three walls formed a lovely cool white room, in traditional Georgian style (representing old England I suppose) which was cleverly lit with constantly changing slogans of the time in neon colours, decorative features and backdrops projected onto its surface. This allowed settings to change quickly and kept the pace moving, as well as adding a pointed commentary on the times. The coup de theatre at the end when the three walls of the room were flung back to the floor by the bomb just as the hero was making a new start was a fine ending and deserved a better play.

Interesting that Brecht’s didactic theatre written in 1944 filled the main house for last Thursdays matinee while this one- an NT production in the much smaller courtyard theatre- was at least three quarters empty. Maybe the teachers who could have used the schools pack which the NT produced were more comfortable dealing with issues in the abstract and the young multi racial community all around the theatre who should have been a target audience knew enough to realise that they were in danger of being condescended to.