Spoiler alert – this review contains significant plot and production details, which you might prefer not to know until after you’ve seen the play. If you have a chance though, do go to see it.
This is not at all a comfortable play. You simply never know quite what’s going on. Almost all the basic details of the situation laid out in the opening scene, are contradicted in later scenes and many of the contradictions are never resolved. We don’t know whose flat we’re in, whether the daughter is in London or in Paris, whether she’s married or divorced, whether her husband / partner is sympathetic or menacing, what has happened to a second daughter, and so on. The same roles are played by different actors in different scenes. so we don’t even fully get a grip on who’s who. Time is a fairly slippery concept too as scenes are interrupted or replayed, so we never really have a full grasp of time, place or person – fairly basic concepts in theatre. The music between scenes becomes increasingly fractured and the furnishings gradually disappear from the set.
The aim of all this disorientation is to show life from the point of view of the father, who is gradually slipping into dementia and reverting to childhood. He’s not sure who his daughter is, who the carer is, or where he is. Everything keeps changing to the point that he questions everyone else’s sanity as much as his own. It’s a convincing performance from Kenneth Cranham as the father, who wanders around the stage in pyjamas a lot of the time, making little sense of what’s going on, before ending up in a hospital bed, desperately calling out for his mummy. Claire Skinnner plays his daughter (for most of the play!), which inevitably brought to mind the same actress trying to deal with both an ageing father and young children in ‘Outnumbered’, as well as some of the parallels with ‘King Lear’.
In a Question and Answer session with the cast after the performance, one audience member suggested that absence of love was the tragedy of the play, but that didn’t feel right to me. There was little doubting the love that Claire Skinner showed in her portrayal of the daughter, but love isn’t always enough in the tragedy of old age. As I’ve seen with my own parents and others, the role of carer can be particularly thankless and another questioner almost broke down as she thanked the cast for their sympathetic portrayal of this. But in the end that wasn’t really the point either. This was about the tragedy of the parent, through whose eyes we were being asked to experience it, rather than that of the carer. It succeeded brilliantly in portraying that, leaving all of us just a little bit more nervous about what might be to come, particularly those of us who are maybe closer to the high risk age than we might like to imagine.
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.
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.