Category Archives: Theatre
Does Phil Porter’s play create an over-sentimentalised view of war? Certainly it’s the First World War as family entertainment, the RSC’s Christmas show aimed at families and recommended for children over the age of nine. But even nine year olds these days are raised on a diet of much grittier action than this. Video games, such as Call of Duty, may be aimed at slightly higher ages, but the third Hobbit film, which I saw this week, is certainly aimed at anybody over the age of 9 and it has plenty of decapitations, stabbings and generally graphic, if slightly cartoonish, violence.
Here instead we get a nurse singing Ave Maria and war reimagined as cricket, as well as the expected soldiers singing ‘Silent Night’, exchanging cigarettes and kicking around a football.
The question is prompted in part by an article by Sebastian Borger, a German journalist based in London, who finds himself bemused by the British attitude to commemorating war. The trigger for his article was the Sainsburys Christmas ad, again based on the Christmas truce, and effectively using it, with the British Legion’s endorsement, to sell carrots and Christmas puddings. But it could equally have been the poppies at the Tower of London, a magnificent and moving spectacle, but one carefully calibrated to record the number of purely British military dead and treading a fine line between commemoration and celebration. Or it could have been this production. It seems undeniable that there’s been a sentimentalised side to the way that the First World War has been represented in British culture in this centenary year.
Certainly this production has none of the hard-hitting punches of ‘Oh what a lovely war’ – a show that’s perfectly suitable for viewing by families, even for performing by children as I’ve seen in the past. There the description of a lovely war is loaded with irony – here at times it comes close to prosaic description, as the soldiers perform in an extended concert party routine and then kick a football around with their opponents. There are certainly darker moments and every time the action veers too close to celebration or sentimentality it has to be brought back to reality. The brightly lit opening game of cricket suddenly switches to a dimly lit recruiting office, an impromptu game of target practice between the opposing trenches is ended by a soldier being shot in the head, and the concert party is followed by the news that the soldiers are being sent over the top the next day. The casualties are grimly recorded as the fall of wickets on the cricket scoreboard.
But the overall mood of the play is light and if that’s accepted as appropriate, it’s beautifully done. The idea of basing the story around Bruce Bairnsfather, one of the most celebrated cartoonists of the First World War, and a local Stratford man, works really well, and there are good performances from both Joseph Kloska as Bairnsfather and Gerard Horan as Old Bill, his most famous character brought to life. Unfortunately the scenes set in a military hospital work much less well. Were they intended as a counterpoint to the grimness of the trenches, or more cynically just as a way to create some female parts in the production, particularly as it is played by largely the same group of actors as are currently playing two other productions with stronger female parts? Either way they feel forced and the arguments between a nurse and a matron feel artificial, set up to create an unrealistic parallel with the truce being played out by the men.
Whatever my doubts about the sentimentality and the structure of the play, I have to say that it was wonderful entertainment, and I guess that was its main aim. There are one or two deeper moments, as when Bairnsfather initially refuses to shake the hand of his German counterpart, prompting a reflection on how little difference there really is between the sides and between the ordinary soldiers, or when he tackles his commanding officer who insists on curtailing the truce, but these are exceptions. This is not a play about the futility of war, or one that draws any meaningful parallels with modern wars (anyone for a Christmas kickabout with Islamic State?). It’s just a very entertaining family show for Christmas. If that involves lots of carols and a thick layer of sentimentality, well that’s OK. There’ll be plenty of harder reality in the New Year.
Another gloriously enjoyable evening at the RSC in Stratford. Shakespeare’s setting of Love’s Labour’s Lost in a court in Navarre, has been moved to a country house in England in the period just before the First World War. Inevitably that brings Downton Abbey to mind, but the influences on this production are much wider than that. There’s certainly a bit of Brideshead Revisited and more than a touch of My Fair Lady. The play within a play in the second act is almost Gilbert and Sullivan, the policeman arriving at the country house is Agatha Christie-ish (as is the vicar),and the gardener Costard seems to be closely modelled on Compo from Last of the Summer Wine. The ending in a big musical number even seems to be have a tinge of Les Miserables. But out of these varied influences, the Director Christopher Luscombe and his team have created something special.
The play is beautifully designed by Simon Higlett, with a wonderful set closely based on Charlecote Park, close to Stratford. The interior of the house slides back to convert into an exterior bowling lawn, and a rooftop setting rises from below. The costumes are a delight, and looking down on the set from the side of the upper balcony, it’s clear that the positioning of the actors in every scene has been carefully thought through from a design perspective as well as a dramatic one. The music by Nigel Hess adds greatly to the enjoyment, both in set piece songs and dances and in occasional incidental music, although the musicians are mostly hidden away.
The cast too is uniformly impressive, from Edward Bennett and Michele Terry as Berowne and Rosaline, through to John Hodgkinson and Peter McGovern as Don Armado and Moth. The rooftop scene where the four men catch each other out writing poems to their loves works wonderfully, the Russian dance in the Second Act is a riot, as is the performance of the Nine Worthies, and the conclusion, where the men, having been told they must wait a year, then re-appear in World War I uniform and march off, made perfect sense and added real poignancy.
The RSC is pairing the play with Much Ado about Nothing, rebadged as Love’s Labour’s Won and set after World War I with the same cast. If it’s anything like as good as this, it will be well worth the trip.
A trip to London with young nephews and niece was a good excuse to see the musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s been running for over a year now and is on to at least its second cast, but it’s still packing them in and you can see why. The show is really all about the special effects, and some of them are pretty amazing. The Oompa Loompas are great, in a variety of different guises, the glass lift is magical, the stage set generally is impressively high tech and the shrinking of Mike Teavee is an absolute triumph – rapturously received at the performance I saw. Even one of the less high tech effects, the simple flying off of a paper aeroplane, is quietly impressive.
The music and the songs are a bit of a mixed bag. There was too much amplification in places, making some of the lyrics difficult to follow, and the only ones that really stuck in the memory were ‘If your mother were here’ (a duet for Charlie’s parents) and ‘Don’t ya pinch me, Charlie’, both at the end of the first Act. By then the action was beginning to drag a bit as we reached the hour mark and still hadn’t even met Willy Wonka (other than a disguised version of him posing as a tramp) or seen inside the chocolate factory.
The arrival of Alex Jennings as Willy Wonka just before the interval did liven things up though and I thought he got the character just about right, with always a hint of menace as well as of magic. And the inventiveness of the Oompa Loompa routines in the second act was marvellous and kept the action moving along much better. All the children in the audience certainly loved it and even the adults were pretty impressed.
I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Regeneration’, a play based on Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy of novels set in Craiglockhart, a military hospital in Edinburgh, treating officers sent back from the trenches with shell shock. It’s currently on tour, and I saw it at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. I haven’t read the books, so I can only judge it as a stand-alone play, but on that basis it worked really well. It had a good dramatic structure, some impressive effects with nightmares, apparitions and sudden recall of the trenches (but not too much of this), and some good dramatic devices. The cast was uniformly impressive, the direction was good and it’s a well written play.
The play highlights the relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who really did cross paths in the hospital in 1917, but it’s about much more than that. It flirts with several different themes before finally absolutely nailing one. There are hints at homosexuality, but that’s not what it’s about. There are hints at heterosexual relationships too, with regular references to girlfriends and wives, but none of them appear (it’s a very male play), so it’s not about that either. It’s certainly partly about class, both within the officer class and between them and the other ranks. The public school background of Sassoon is balanced with Prior who’s come up through the ranks with little education, and Wilfred Owen somewhere in the middle. All of them though can enjoy, at least temporarily, a lifestyle that includes sessions on the golf course and invitations to dine at the Conservative Club – options that were unlikely to be available to privates suffering from shell shock.
Of course it has some focus on poetry too, but it’s not really about that. Owen brings his latest draft of a poem to Sassoon, who quickly scans it and suggests changing the odd word here and there. I’m no poet myself, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how the creative process in poetry works.
Perhaps a little more realistically the play looks at the attitudes of the time to shell shock and what later became known as post-traumatic stress. It draws a dramatic contrast between the progressive regime at Craiglockhart and the entirely unsympathetic treatment elsewhere, that was little more than subjecting patients to torture. The torture is not shown as ineffective, just inhumane, while the morality of even the more humane methods still comes in for questioning. Success for the hospital consists in getting the officers sufficiently cured to be sent back to the front, where their chances of survival for more than a few months will be low. Rivers, the progressive head of the hospital, is increasingly troubled by this and does what he can to keep his patients out of the line of fire. But in assuaging his own guilt, he only succeeds in increasing their guilt.
And in the end it’s in the focus on guilt that the play really hits home. The war seems to generate guilt for everybody – guilt that they’re letting their colleagues down, or that they won’t be able to face up to the ‘What did you do in the war?’ question when it’s all over. Even guilt for the poets who feel the need to record what’s going on. Having encouraged Sassoon to return to the front, because ‘there need’s to be a poet there’, Wilfred Owen then hears that Sassoon has been invalided back. It’s the cue for him to volunteer himself to return, where he is killed just a week before the armistice, of course triggering more guilt for Sassoon.
Henry IV Part I, as directed by Gregory Doran at Stratford is a riot. The production is visually stunning, the lines are beautifully and clearly spoken, the cast is dominated by Anthony Sher as Falstaff, but is superb throughout, and it’s overall a first class theatrical experience. Part II shares many of those same features, but created far less of an impression on me. The comic invention that provided a balance to the fast moving action and the weighty historical themes in Part I, seemed to be dragged out interminably in Part II. Having never seen, or even read, either play before, it seems presumptuous to criticise Shakespeare for this and it’s hard to fault the RSC production, but still that was how it felt to me.
Sher’s Falstaff moves slowly and talks slowly but his comic timing is brilliant, as he comes up with more and more far-reached explanations for his cowardice and sloth. I loved the mock trial scene in the tavern where Falstaff first acts out the king and then Prince Hal, and his vain attempts to rise from his back on the battlefield were comedy gold. As a reveller in the tavern he was totally convincing, although the idea of him being allowed anywhere near a battlefield was absurd. It’s hard at times to take the battle scenes seriously, when Falstaff is wandering in and out of the action, trundling a little cart behind him like a toddler, and allegedly leading a ragtag company of 150 men.
If Falstaff dominates the stage, there are still great parts for Hotspur, Prince Hal and the King, and fine performances by Trevor White, Alex Hassell and Jasper Britton. Hotspur is portrayed as rash and impetuous in the extreme, so that it’s not hard to imagine him a liability as a military commander, but harder to understand why King Henry would see him as a model for his own son.
Overall though I loved the first play, and wasn’t quite sure what went wrong between it and the second one. Perhaps nothing except the curse of all sequels, that they try too hard to reprise the bits that seemed to go so well in the first. But the tavern scenes in Part II don’t have the freshness they had in the first part, and there’s less action to fill the play out and move it on. The waiter being frantically pulled in all directions provided some of the best moments in Part I, but by Part II he’s just dashing across the stage shouting ‘Anon’ in the search for a cheap laugh. And the scenes in Gloucestershire where Falstaff goes to recruit soldiers and finds only cripples and simpletons just left you with an uncomfortable feeling of mocking the afflicted. Still the play gets it together more for the end when Hal seizes the crown too soon and in quite a moving scene, has to backpedal in front of his father. Then having finally inherited the crown, he perhaps inevitably, but chillingly, renounces Falstaff, along with his old life.
Wow! It’s not difficult to see why the lawyers did not want this play performed, or even announced, while the phone hacking trial was going on. It’s a satire, but like all the best satires, it’s sufficiently well grounded in reality to hit home and to avoid descending into farce. Of course the characters are caricatures, but at times it’s scary how ludicrous it can get without becoming detached from reality. Hacking into the voicemails of abducted children, tabloid editors in bed with the police and politicians, press campaigns leading to the hounding of innocent people, police shooting an unarmed black man, journalists searching through the bins of celebrities and paying civil servants for confidential information, politicians desperate for media endorsement and conspiring to keep their own indiscretions hidden, police deliberately ignoring evidence of widespread criminality, media owners cynically controlling politicians to further their own financial interests… all of this ought to be farcical, but at times seems little more than documentary.
Richard Bean’s play has masses of energy and the cast bring some real verve to it. Billie Piper romps through the play, as tabloid editor Paige Britain, delivering monologues of breath-taking cynicism to the audience, as she manipulates everyone from her closest colleagues to the police and the Prime Minister. It’s clear from the start that it’s going to be an uncomfortable ride, as she forestalls any hint of smugness from Guardian-reading liberals, and she’s back at the end to make us all feel at least partly complicit in what went on.
She has some great lines, but certainly no monopoly on them, and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Aaron Neil does a great comic turn as the witless Police Commissioner, which he plays absolutely straight-faced. A personal favourite was his mangling of the already mangled Donald Rumsfeld quote on known unknowns, and the way some of his lines were given the Nick Clegg treatment in Youtube-style videos on giant screens seemed almost ground-breaking. I’ve seen several plays before that have used screens and audio-visual elements, but nothing before that harnessed new technology and integrated it into the live action so effectively. It’s also quite impressive that a serious role is given to an actress with dwarfism, although they can’t resist using it for some deliciously politically incorrect jokes.
Maybe some of the targets were a bit too easy, maybe even there were too many disparate targets for any serious analysis of the reforms needed, but overall it felt to me like a triumph, and certainly a gloriously enjoyable afternoon in the theatre.
If there’s such a thing as the RSC house style, then I’m a fan of it. The plays they put on always seem to me to be well acted, well spoken and above all, well directed. It’s almost always an enjoyable and rewarding experience watching one of their productions, regardless of the quality of the play and regardless of whether there are star actors in the leading roles. But for the most part the material they have to work with, being written by Shakespeare, is of course of the highest quality.
When they move away from Shakespeare, as with ‘The roaring girl’ that we saw last month, and now with ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the bodies’, they can’t be so confident of the quality of the material,, and with no real star names in the cast, they need the fundamentals of good direction and good acting to carry them through. And it does, as ever. Both of these plays were thoroughly enjoyable and a rich theatrical experience.
The novels on which they’re based have been a huge commercial and critical success, each winning the Booker prize in a unique double success. The plays have been similarly successful, and the packed audience was clearly enthusiastic. But I still have doubts. While I suppose most of the audience were already fans of the books, I’ve made only limited progress into the first one, so the plays had to be judged largely on their own. Did they have enough dramatic structure to stand up as individual plays if you saw them separately and hadn’t read the books? Did they have anything much to say beyond a narrative of what is certainly a fascinating period of English history? What are their themes and do they have anything to say about them? In a number of areas they seem disappointingly ambivalent.
Are they about the exercise of power? There are plenty of hints that both Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey are guilty of some pretty horrific crimes in their personal quests for power and wealth. Both could easily be characterised as evil. But this is no Richard III – their portrayal is essentially sympathetic, Cromwell, on stage for almost the entire 5 hours, is treated almost as a hero, and Wolsey almost as a saint, offering advice from beyond the grave. Thomas More on the other hand, the one character who might be thought to act on principle rather than pure self-interest, and who actually was made a saint after his death, gets a most unsympathetic portrayal. Where is the morality in this production, or is it simply saying that power and self-interest will triumph over morality?
Another theme might be religious freedom, but here again it is strangely ambivalent. There are early hints that Cromwell and Anne Boleyn are motivated by some real attachment to Luther and the new movement of Protestantism. But this is barely credible in the light of the rest of the play where they are much more nakedly motivated by self-interest. You feel they would happily have paid homage to a strong Pope in control of armies that could have helped them, just as they were happy to cut the ties to a weak one, in favour of a King who can advance their careers and their interests.
So is it about loyalty? A large part of the second play is taken up with Cromwell’s settling of scores with all those who contributed to the downfall of Wolsey. The conclusion even hints that as a final settlement he might consider regicide. Again all this is given a very sympathetic portrayal. Are torture, murder, false accusations, all fair game if they are done out of loyalty? It’s unclear where Mantel, or Mike Poulton, who adapted the books for the stage, stand on any of this.
Or what about class? Much is made of the fact that Cromwell comes from a poor background in Putney, and that Wolsey’s father was a butcher. This is a mocking refrain throughout the plays from those who have gained their position and wealth as an accident of birth, although there is no hint that this troubles our heroes in the slightest, or impedes their success. Our natural sympathy is with those who have risen through their own efforts, although again, with little questioning of what methods they are using to achieve that.
Even on the central question of the second play, to what extent Anne Boleyn engaged in adultery, the plays seem studiedly neutral, with the possible answers ranging from on a regular basis, including with her brother, to not at all. That may be the historian’s view as well, but this is a play not a history.
One clear conclusion from seeing these plays performed in London is how wonderful the Stratford stages are. I’m more used to seeing the RSC perform there and you’re much more involved in the whole experience. Here we were near the back of the stalls, underneath an overhanging dress circle, a long way from the stage and with an effectively restricted view. I’m told that the stage was dominated by a large cross, but there’s no way I can confirm that from where I was sitting.
This is a dreadful play, with a complicated, ludicrous plot, clunky dialogue, and language that is not so much old-fashioned as plain unattractive. The defence that it’s a 400 year-old play and has to be judged against the standards of its time just doesn’t wash, when its time was Shakespeare’s time and this is a play being put on at Stratford by the RSC. Shakespeare used a few complicated and ludicrous plots in his time, but he never used language as artlessly as this. Is this play (by Dekker and Middleton) really worthy of the RSC’s attention?
They make a marvellous job of it, as the RSC almost always do, and it’s a wonderful romp. The set is simple, but very effective, the costumes updated to the late Victorian or Edwardian era are great fun, the music and dance (updated to late Elizabethan era!) even more so. Some of the acting and the comic timing is superb and in general the play seemed to me very well directed. But you do feel at times that the cast is achieving everything it is, despite having to fight against the limitations of the play itself. Speeches that are difficult to follow seem to be delivered in exaggerated comic style, or accompanied by action on other parts of the stage, all to distract attention from the actual words. At other times the cast resort to mocking the words directly, highlighting poor rhymes or delivering lines with a knowing glance at the audience.
Lisa Dillon gives a very powerful performance as Moll Cutpurse. She shines in a range of styles and situations, from commanding the stage on her own in the opening prologue, to playing a slapstick ensemble as a French music teacher hiding Mary behind her double bass, not to mention rapping, singing, dancing and playing guitar rock goddess-style along the way. It has to be said that she doesn’t quite carry off the ultimate test of playing a man on stage – her swinging from a chandelier is not so much devil-may-care, as goodness-will-this-thing-bear-my-weight. She is masterful though in the scene where she humiliates Laxton, who dares to think he can seduce her.
Perhaps even better was Lizzie Hopley’s beautifully judged turn as a scheming wife attempting to hide from her husband the evidence of a letter, while all the while manipulating him. Timothy Speyer was the perfect foil as her husband Gallipot, and Geoffrey Freshwater stole several other scenes as Ralph Trapdoor. Overall it was a very enjoyable evening – but just think what they could have done with a decent play.
I used to live no more than 10 minutes’ walk from the National Theatre, but these days a trip up to London to the theatre is a rare treat. And all the more so when it’s to see Simon Russell Beale playing King Lear at the National in a production by Sam Mendes. The last time I saw Lear was at Stratford in 2007 when Ian McKellen played the lead (possibly more at the right age), so it’s a tough comparison for Russell Beale, but he delivers a storming performance, with a lot of subtlety and even tenderness mixed in with the rage.
It’s a production that seems to me to emphasise the drama and the emotion over the speeches and the words. When Lear rages, his delivery is too fast and loud to follow the detail of the words (and he’s not the only one), but the emotion and the general meaning is never in doubt. It’s a large scale dramatic production in several respects, from the sheer size of the supporting cast of soldiers, to a raised cliff in the storm scene that is more reminiscent of Les Miz than Shakespeare. There’s plenty of gore too with the ripping out of Gloucester’s eyes added to by Lear bludgeoning the Fool to death in a bath, in what seems like a surprisingly casual episode of violence that provokes little reaction from the other characters. Much the same is true when Edgar kills his brother Edmund. Understandable as the killing may be, it seems to come out of nowhere and to provoke little reaction from a large crowd on stage. By then there’s quite a collection of dead bodies littering the stage, and it seems to be just another one to add to them.
The whole cast is strong and there are other memorable performances. I enjoyed Tom Brooke as Edgar and Stanley Townsend as Kent in roles that both seem to me quite difficult to get right. Funnily enough the last memorable Edgar I saw was Simon Russell Beale himself, many years ago at Stratford. Kate Fleetwood played Goneril entirely plausibly as a chilling but regal Wallis Simpson figure, but for me Anna Maxwell Martin was far less plausible as Regan and hit several jarring false notes. Overall though, a great day out, a production that will live long in the memory, and all rounded off by a ride up to the top of the Shard (totally over-priced, but an amazing view) and dinner at Jamie’s Italian (an unalloyed pleasure).
For the next year, Sue and I have agreed that we will go to the theatre at least once a month. That probably doesn’t sound like a very stretching target for some, but it will be quite a step up for us – and to add some public reinforcement to the commitment, I will post a record of each visit on this blog. We started this last weekend with a visit to the Theatre Royal in Bath to see ‘Moon on a rainbow shawl’ by Errol John in a production by the Talawa Theatre Company and the National Theatre.
Written in the 1950s, this play fits the kitchen-sink type dramas of the time, but the setting in post-war Trinidad gives a different feel to it, touching on lots of themes to do with poverty and ambition. It took a while to get used to the rhythms of the speech and I never really got on top of what Mavis, the shouty neighbour was saying, missing about half her words, but gradually the other characters drew you in, so that you believed in them and felt for them.
In the second act, the play seemed to get bleaker and bleaker as the agonies pile up for the central characters – Charlie Adams arrested for stealing, Ephraim abandoning Rosa, his pregnant girlfriend, to emigrate to England, and then Esther turning on her mother before running away. There are maybe glimmers of hope right at the end as Esther returns, and Ephraim breaks away for a chance of a better life through emigration, but it’s a pretty dark ending for Mrs. Adams, left on her own to cope with Esther and the baby, and for Rosa, who gives in to the attentions of old Mr. Mack. You’re not left with any great optimism for the chances of Esther succeeding through her scholarship, or even Ephraim succeeding in England, given the racial discrimination he’s still likely to find there.
Mrs. Adams is really the most powerful character in the play, the one you sympathise with most and the one who ends up with least hope. It’s a very strong performance by Martina Laird, and there are several good roles for women and good performances too. The only disappointment really is Mavis and her boyfriend Prince, who seem to be there mostly as comic relief, but who didn’t really work as such for me. They’re maybe there too though to bring in another sub-theme about the power of the dollar, as American soldiers and sailors come and go in Mavis’ hut.
I liked the set (by Soutra Gilmour) with three shacks, one cut away, one up on stilts and one with a verandah, and I liked the little bit of music too, and more music could have livened it up a bit. Overall though it was a play that made you think, and despite the rather bleak themes, an entertaining evening.