Mark Gatiss as King Charles I. Photo Catherine Ashmore
I have a peculiar relationship with british history. As I never studied it at school, all my knowledge comes from fictional universes. When I hear of Oliver Cromwell, I am more likely to think of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright than any historical facts. With that in mind (which is to say with so little about the actual historical facts in mind) I went to see Howard Brenton’s play 55 Days, directed by Howard Davies, about the days leading to the trial and execution of King Charles I amid the English Civil war.
It’s a play of two halves: on one side we have the historical context, more than a dozen characters representing different fractions and ideas, trying to get their point across. I admit that in those scenes I felt lost. The performances were energetic, the direction had urgency but no character had enough time to make their mark with a text that seemed wordy and slow. It felt like the actors were running ahead trying to create momentum while dragging the text behind. But the mirror side of the play more than makes up for this problem. Continue reading
“No one else has ever seen it. I ‘ve never shown it to anyone”. Jez Butterworth’s The River is a small jewel of a play, drilling a hole into the lies and truths and uncertainties of love, or that place before love when a look can seal the deal or destroy everything. It’s poetic and a bit magical, and funny enough (in fact very funny at places) to blow away any cobwebs of pretentiousness. This place is real, but it might be the kind of real you never come across in everyday life.
The production, as directed by Ian Rickson, strikes a great balance between this magical poetic place and a realistic approach that brings delicate flavours into sharp relief (the cooking metaphors are not entirely out of place). From the set (the kitchen of a wooden cabin complete with oven, white curtains and a window seat) to lighting (kerosene lamps and transparent sunrises) the attention to detail is geared towards ultra realism. The pace is precise and beautiful. Occasionally it slows down to five minutes without dialogue and in those moments we were transfixed: Dominic West gutting a fish and chopping vegetables for several minutes was as fascinating as anything else in the play. Continue reading
Tonight is the first preview of Jez Butterworth’s The River and we have tickets. No thanks to me as my attempts online were a complete and utter failure, but thanks to revstan who queued at the theatre (she wrote two lovely posts about the experience here and here – everything you wanted to know about the excitement of queuing and never dared to ask).
Very few productions deserve a pre performance post. Jez Butterworth’s The River is one of those productions. His next play after Jerusalem was always destined to be an event. But Royal Court left nothing to chance: the production (directed by Ian Rickson, with a cast that includes Miranda Raison and Dominic West no less) plays at the Jerwood theatre upstairs. An 80 seater at the best of times, rumour has it that for this production it’s only 60 seats. Not much larger than someone’s living room. Most crucially tickets can only be purchased on the day of the performance. This decision, which penalises theatregoes who don’t live in London and regular Royal Court audiences, was, in my opinion, at best misguided, at worst cynical. What’s beyond doubt is the controversy it created. Along with the regular complains, discussion focused on the new practice of paid queuing. If Royal Court wanted to give everyone the same chance, you have to consider whether it achieved exactly the opposite.
But today these objections don’t matter. Royal Court will be buzzing, very little is known about the play and we are all in for a surprise (one way or another). And I talked about nerves. My nerves that is. It’s the dread and excitement revstan has been talking about. I used to get very nervous going to the theatre. I could envisage myself in the place of the actor when something goes wrong and my heart would pound. I learned to enjoy this, nerves, butterflies and all. Live performance. This is what’s all about.
Update 20/10/2012: you can find my review of the production here.
Luke Treadaway as Christopher. Photo by Manuel Harlan
The National Theatre has had a bumper year in its Cottesloe venue, with both This House and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time being sold out at the back of excellent word of mouth and reviews. (I can confirm all good things you heard are true). That kind of success, especially in a small venue like the Cottesloe, is often followed by news of a transfer to a bigger venue and that seems to be the case for both of the above productions: National Theatre has officially announced This House will transfer to the 1,000-plus seater Olivier from February 2013 and now word is the Curious Incident will transfer to the Apollo at the West End from March 2013. None of these is a surprise: by the time most people hear about a good play performed at the Cottesloe, all tickets are gone. In that sense, the transfers are welcome (and in a personal note, I would definitely like to see both plays again) but there are some reservations. Continue reading
Richard McCabe as Romeo and Kathryn Hunter as Juliet. Photo Keith Pattison
“Is love a tender thing? It is too rough. Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.” At its best, writing a review is my attempt to stay a little longer in the world of the production. Not to explain or dissect, but to stay in a place that I loved. A Tender Things is such a place. Ben Power’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with an old couple facing the only inescapable tragedy love deep into old age can face, is indeed a tender, magical, deeply moving and ultimately joyous thing.
Ben Power rearranges Shakespeare’s text into a new world, but words carry the memory of young love and language leaves space for unspoken sorrows to live. Richard McCabe and Kathryn Hunter, under the direction of Helena Kaut Howson, create a world of two people, a world so complete and perfect, that the ending is the natural and only possible conclusion. (In Shakespeare’s play, the tragedy is there are many solutions to the problem, but none is taken and the story ends in death. In A Tender Thing, the tragedy is the characters have to face the end in the full knowledge that there is one possible conclusion).
Kathryn Hunter, with her vital physicality, gives her Juliet an extraordinary spectrum of emotional and physical life, even as she wastes away. Richard McCabe lives the joy of love and the tragedy of parting with heartbreaking openness. He pulls, pushes, struggles with his glasses like these actions could give an end to his pain. When he gives into it, everything about him crumbles. Their spoken interactions are teasing, silly, warm but their true emotional life is in their physical connection: in one scene Romeo tries to support Juliet who, literally, slips away from him. His distress and resolve reflects everything that is at stake. Continue reading
Amanda Lawrence as The Devil, Bertie Carvel as Enrico. Photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
Do we go to heaven because we have faith or because we do good deeds? This is the central question in Damned by Despair, a play by 17th century spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina, revived at the National theatre in a new version by Frank McGuiness. The distinct possibility that heaven doesn’t exist is not part of this play’s fabric, and I am happy to leave my agnostic beliefs at the door and explore fascinating spiritual questions in their own terms.
Enrico is a total thug, doing unspeakable things (think Reservoir Dogs in Naples), but also has an unwavering faith in god and a real love for his father. He is ridiculously charismatic, not least because Bertie Carvel can be anything but: his dark streak is laced with something softer and more tender, almost as explosive as the violence itself. Paulo is a monk, whose faith in god hangs on a thread. If the thread breaks, the faith goes. As played by Sebastian Armersto, Paolo is wrapped in himself and his agony failing to engage with the real world (isn’t that more damning than the lack of faith?). The spiritual fates of these two men are locked together to the bitter end. Continue reading
There is a storm brewing in the air. I haven’t got around to writing my own review of Damned by Despair yet (Update: you can find my full review here), but it’s obvious it provokes extreme reactions: revstan liked it a lot, but there are ramblings on twitter by people who hated it with passion and commitment. One particularly militant theatregoer has written an open letter to Nic Hytner to withdraw the production “for the sake of the reputation of the National Theatre and and any compassion you have for the unfortunate actors taking part in it” (posted at the National Theatre facebook page). Continue reading
Fiona Shaw as Galactia. Photo Mark Douet
Howard Barker and I haven’t had the best of starts. When, a couple of years ago, I was introduced to his work in a season of plays presented at the Riverside studios, I found the experience joyless and cerebral. Interesting definitely, but suffocating at the same time. Inevitably I was approaching the National Theatre production of Scenes from an Execution, directed by Tom Cairns, with a certain amount of caution.
The beginning of the play both confirmed and disproved some of these notions: a man – or rather a talking head – sitting on a white box floats towards the audience. A woman – powerful, sexy, unselfconscious, full of acerbic humour – paints a naked man (her lover). They have a fight. She has been commissioned an epic painting to commemorate the battle of Lepanto. She is too full of life not to seek the truth in her art, and too short sighted to see anything else. Continue reading