People. Leeds Grand Theatre. 7-11-13

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Alan Bennett’s latest play, People, is quite different from the plays he has written in recent years. It is a glorious romp stuffed full of one liners, a hilarious seaside postcard of a play, but one which also has attitude, thoughtfulness and compassion. It is the kind of mixture which only Alan Bennett could write. Dorothy Stacpoole, an elderly former model, fashionista and a peeress in her own right, has been festering away in the crumbling Stacpoole stately pile for a very long time, along with her companion Iris, in spite of the efforts of her archdeacon sister to prize them out. The moment of crisis has arrived when something must be done about it and there is talk of selling the house to the National Trust or a consortium who will move it, lock stock and Dorothy, from South Yorkshire down to the south of England. Neither of these are what Dorothy wants and thanks to a chance encounter with an old flame some rather more interesting events intervene as the filming of a down market porn film in the house opens the two ladies eyes to new possibilities in life and shows them a way out of their isolation and inactivity. This is vintage Bennett territory as institutions are slyly, but not unkindly, mocked and social assumptions are questioned. Exactly why are the middle classes prepared to be herded round the shell of somebody’s former life with volunteers in every room waiting to give out information, prepared to give their time for only the promise of “a cup of tea and a flapjack”? Do we really know why we are there? There are some bizarre things happening in what has come to be known as Britain’s “heritage industry”. I walked around one of them in York this summer, “York’s Chocolate Story”, and there are many more examples. The play’s title is a reminder that people are a nuisance. The first thing that any family who makes enough money does is buy themselves space from other people, and even space from each other. Few of us would share our homes and allow people to traipse around our property, however sprawling, unless there was no alternative. The Yorkshire phrase, always uttered with dread, “living on top of each other” sums it up perfectly. The title is also a reminder that people come first, they deserve care and respect. Dorothy matters, she is not just a eccentric turn for the benefit of a stream of visitors and during the play we see her reclaim her self respect and her dignity.

Sian Phillips is an absolute knockout as Dorothy. In a play where the past and the present intertwine it is important that we can see both the elderly Dorothy and the elegant model that she once was as she comes out of her shell. It is a performance of great wit and style. Brigit Forsyth is a delightful contrast to her as Dorothy’s companion Iris, shuffling around and delivering some of the best lines with perfect timing and the two of them make a great mischief making partnership. Selena Cadell also gives a very sharp and precise performance as June the archdeacon and the large cast moves the whole play along with great skill and speed. The end part of the play is a marvel of stagecraft and timing.

Bob Crowley is one of our most experienced set designers and he has clearly had a wonderful time designing the wreckage of a great house which becomes a character in its own right, as it needs to. Richard Eyre as director knows exactly how to make Alan Bennett’s work shine after working with him so often and gets the tone of the play exactly right- a delicate business when it comes to Bennett’s writing.

There was a full house for the matinee that I saw and most of those in the audience had had their tickets for a long time. They were older people but sharp, lively and engaged and there was a buzz among them which matched the energy on stage. We went home feeling energised and ready to sing Downtown to anyone who would listen. At the end of the play Dorothy says, “Let lost be lost. Let gone be gone, and not fetched back”. We all have a future, short or long and it is this mindset which allows Alan Bennett’s writing to continue to sparkle. We don’t have to forget the past but we don’t have to allow ourselves to be fossilised within it either. The English have a tendency to be rather too fond of doing that. We should all be thankful that Alan Bennett is still around to point these things out and shake us up a bit. No wonder he is so much loved………. well maybe not so much by the National Trust after this one but the rest of us are still cheering.

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Othello. Live relay from the National Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 26-09-13

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Olivia Vinall as Desdemona and Adrian Lester as Othello.
Production photograph by Gary Calton.

Richard Eyre has set the 2013 National Theatre production of Othello in a modern military garrison out in the middle east and the new setting fits it perfectly. It is tawdry, claustrophobic and full of tension. The barrack room drinking scene is perfectly choreographed by the fight director Kate Waters and there is a real sense of danger. Something is going to give- this is a place where bad things are waiting to happen. Richard Eyre’s direction is detailed and insightful. Everything has been very clearly thought through and there are no jarring notes. The verse speaking is exemplary. It is all completely believable and horribly real. There are a few minor decisions- just a few- that I might have questioned, but the choices made for the production all work. I am certainly not claiming to know better!

The character who benefits most from the change in setting is Rory Kinnear’s outstanding Iago. He is conniving, bitter and damaged by long army service which he does not feel has been properly rewarded. He is a second rate soldier who has already had more promotion than he deserves, he will never be anything else and it rankles. He plays on the weaknesses of others without any compunction- a man with no moral compass. This is Iago’s play, whatever the title says, and he is fascinating to watch.
Adrian Lester has a potentially harder job in this setting as Othello. Playing a modern general he cannot borrow his charisma from sweeping around in fine robes, he has to find it in himself and his own bearing as an actor. Adrian Lester has natural authority on stage and he uses this to great effect in the early scenes, creating a portrait of a charismatic leader who attracts admiration and respect easily from those around him. He is at ease in his own skin, happy and self assured. The man who Iago could never be. When this fine man falls apart, to the accompaniment of some of the best verse speaking you are ever likely to hear, it is painful to watch, as it should be. We feel the loss of a great spirit. It should never have happened but the clarity of the two central performances leave us in no doubt about how it did.
Olivia Vinall is a fine Desdemona, feisty, full of life and completely riveting in her death scene as we share her terror. It is easy to see why Othello was attracted to her. Few things are more satisfying than seeing a young actor get the break that they deserve and I’m sure that there will be a lot more fine performances ahead from her. I liked Nick Sampson too as Lodovico- a small part but his truthfulness and style was important as a representative of the Venetian court. Emilia is one of my favourite characters and Lyndsey Marshall was very convincing as an embittered army wife and soldier who had taken too much bullshit from those around her, especially her husband, for too long. The scene between Emilia and Desdemona before Desdemona’s death was beautifully done. I wish that Tom Robertson as Roderigo had been allowed to be less foolish and more touching- he is a fool but he is a fool for love of Desdemona and it is those genuine feelings that Iago makes use of.

This is a terrific production, well deserving of the praise that has been heaped on it. I’m glad that I was able to see it, even if only by live relay. I would have loved to be sitting in the Olivier.

Henry IV Part Two. William Shakespeare. Part of the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal. BBC image.

The second part of the BBC’s Henry IV is a real gem, building on everything that was established in the first part, developing the characters and allowing some powerful pay offs from the work that has been done in the early scenes, while also introducing new things to admire. If you are looking for any criticism I’m afraid that you are not going to find it here. Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff shows new facets of a complex man. He is very moving indeed in the scene where he takes his leave of Doll Tearsheet (played quite beautifully by Maxine Peake) and also, at times, deeply dislikeable. I would have liked more humour, but this part is a difficult trick to pull off for an actor and perhaps you can’t have everything. There are two particularly delightful supporting performances, from David Bamber as Justice Shallow (one of my favourite minor Shakespearean characters) and Geoffrey Palmer as the Lord Chief Justice. The scene where Shallow is looking back with Falstaff at the “days that we have seen” made me ache for their past and what they have lost, and it was good to see Geoffrey Palmer fleshing out the bones of a deeply dislikable, pragmatic politician. One look spoke volumes. Lovely work. I am also going to give a cheer for young Billy Matthews as Falstaff’s page. A very truthful and mature performance.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff. BBC image.

But my goodness what about Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal! The scene where Hal tries on the crown, thinking that his father will never wake again, and then has to face his dying fathers rage at what he has done, talking him round and gaining his trust, was simply outstanding. It is great writing, one of Shakespeare’s finest scenes, and he just took it and ran with it. There is nowhere to hide when you are being filmed in close up and we saw every thought. When he made his great speech to his father we already knew that he meant every word because we had seen it in his face as he tried on the crown. He had managed to make Hal’s thoughts visible. There is no doubt in my mind now that Jeremy Irons also gives the greatest performance of his career. The two of them strike sparks off each other. At the end of the play, when Hal disowns Falstaff, we see the results of this epithany. It is an action without spite. He knows what he has to do, and he knows that it has to be done publicly. It is the Lord Chief Justice who finishes the job with brutal efficiency on behalf of his new master. Hal has taken on the heavy duty and responsibility of a monarch and while he admits to his brothers that his new role doesn’t suit him as well as it may appear to do there is no doubt that we now have a hero who will fulfill it and make England proud.

The settings are quite beautiful, richly textured and atmospheric, and the whole thing is beautifully shot with some wonderful close ups that lead us into the heart of the characters. Evocative of a timeless England and a whole society which is still recognisable to us today. Great directing from Richard Eyre.

There is nothing quite like watching a great production on stage, being there and breathing the same air as the actors, but I am deeply grateful that this Henry IV is on film and on record for all time. It really deserves to be………. and if the RSC cast Tom Hiddleston in anything in the future (something they should just get on with ASAP) nothing on earth will stop me buying a ticket.

Henry IV Part I. William Shakespeare. Part of the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Tom Hiddleston as Hal. BBC images.

The first time I saw Henry IV part one it was as part of the English Shakespeare Company’s complete history cycle during a remarkable week at the Theatre Royal Norwich back in the 1980’s. The week ended with a long standing ovation from an audience who had mostly been there all week, sitting in the same seats, and daffodils being thrown. I had never even read the play, although I knew a bit about it as a former English student, and I was pinned to my seat by a sequence of productions which is still what I think of as the finest experience that I have ever had inside a theatre. For the first week of my Easter holidays that year I lived for my trip to the theatre each evening. Those productions were brave, daring, innovative, controversial and absolutely true to the spirit of the plays and the Henrys, where the project started, were by far the best of them. They showed me my own England alongside that of Shakespeare’s, and I recognised it with both joy and pain. One day I shall write about that week in detail as my memories of it are still razor sharp around twenty five years later. Since then I have seen two more great stage productions, both from the RSC, and if I was forced to choose any single Shakespeare play as my favourite Henry IV part I would be it, along with part two. I am not alone in that. From their first performance they were instantly hugely popular with audiences who recognised themselves and their society in them. In particular they loved the quintessentially English character of Falstaff, flawed, charming, untrustworthy, wise and shameless, to distraction. The character of Prince Hal, his troubled relationship with his father, and his growth into a king of heroic stature is also a sure fire crowd pleaser and there is one humdinger of a sword fight at the end to allow the audience to cheer him on. What more could they, or we, want? It’s all there.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV. BBC images.

The film of Henry IV part 1 which Richard Eyre has made as part of the BBC The Hollow Crown series is a fine piece of work. He has directed it with great flair, never allowing the pace to drop, ratcheting up the tension in the interior scenes, and bringing both the teeming life within the Boars Head and the claustrophobic court of Henry IV vividly to life. The battle scenes are beautifully shot in empty snow strewn winter fields and both close ups and internalised soliloquies are used to great effect. I particularly liked Falstaff’s speech about honour, heard in voice over as we watch him walk silently through the camp before battle. It is a very clear, well thought out reading of the play and there are some excellent performances, and no weak links. Ton Hiddleston is perfect as Hal, even allowing for the fact that Hal is a very easy character to fall in love with, dynamic, articulate and oozing presence. Right from the start there is no doubt at all that he is one day going to step up and become the hero that his father needs him to be but not now, and not yet. He is making hay while the sun shines. His purpose is absolute and he is aware of the cost there will one day be to him when he fulfills it. When his moment comes he recognises it immediately and it is thrilling to see him come together with his father and accept his destiny. We see both the man and the future king and that was as beguiling for Elizabethan audiences as it is today for those who read hello magazine, find pictures of William and Kate, and wonder about their home life. It’s real box office- always was and always will be. I was thrilled to see Jeremy Irons give a full hearted and honest performance as Henry IV. I don’t think I have ever seen him act so well, there was no relying on style or looks, just a complete understanding of the man he was playing, both as a father and as a king. Simon Russell Beale gives Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and complex characters, a good run for his money. He is everything that the part needs, while perhaps missing a little of the unlikely charm that leavens the character’s unsympathetic qualities, and his scenes in the Boars Head are very fine indeed. I really felt for Hotspur’s wife, a role in life which you certainly wouldn’t volunteer for. Joe Armstrong gives a pile driver of a performance. I’m not even sure whether that is a criticism or not, Hotspur is not exactly meant to be a shrinking violet, but I could have done with a bit of light and shade if it could possibly have been found. These central performances are given context by a wealth of detail from the actors playing the smaller roles. I liked Maxine Peake for instance as Doll Tearsheet and Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy. Two small, underwritten parts where the actor has to do a lot of work to make them live, especially important when there are few women characters in the play.
This film is a great achievement, especially as Shakespeare doesn’t naturally belong on film, and I am already excited about seeing the second part.