Here are the facts: Edward Petherbridge, while in New Zealand rehearsing King Lear in 2007, suffered a stroke. That experience (the illness, the production that didn’t happen) inspired My Perfect Mind. Here is another fact: the play, written by Kathryn Hunter, Paul Hunter and Petherbridge himself, is simple (two actors playing dozens of parts with the assistance of mundane props) yet difficult to describe. It’s free association, perfectly structured, executed and improvised, through the imagination, emotions, memories and images of a perfect mind. Freud without the couch, the doctor or the breaks. Continue reading
Awards, especially the announcement of the nominees, follow a familiar pattern: anticipation and excitement followed by incredulity. It’s a well known fact that, despite being irresistible and so much fun, awards always get it wrong. Having said that, this year’s Olivier nominations got almost everything right: there is little I would object to, at least not with any conviction. Tomorrow’s award ceremony would be unique in that respect, I can route for almost everybody.
But inevitably, with the quality of London theatre, many productions missed out. Following the rule of the Kermodes (no one nominated for an Olivier is eligible), here are my awards for the past theatrical year. With an additional category or two. Because they are my awards and I can do what I like.
Best Actor: Pip Carter is an actor of minimalistic explosiveness, often doing very little and usually stealing every scene he is in. Taking the lead in Nick Dear’s The Dark Earth and The Light Sky, he brought poet Ed Thomas to life in a performance of reticent vivid pulsating desperation. He made it look easy, too easy in fact, hence the absence of award recognition. Runner Up: I had to think long and hard about this one and John Heffernan missed by a whisker: three plays (She Stoops to Conquer, Love and Information and The Physicists), an impressive range and a light touch that brings depth and humanity to all his roles mark him out as an exceptional talent. Edward II at the National next. After that, the sky is the limit. Continue reading
Simon Russell Beale’s King Lear, directed by Sam Mendes and heading for the National in 2014, will undoubtedly be the theatre destination for next year. Phrases like “hot ticket” and “eagerly anticipated” are frequently used, but in this case totally justified. The rest of the cast isn’t announced yet, but word is Adrian Scarborough will be Simon Russell Beale’s Fool. Be still my heart, can this be right? Excitement kicks up another notch (if that was possible) and we only have nine months to wait.
In other casting news, Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II starring John Heffernan and directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, will be staged at the National Theatre later in the year, a great opportunity to see the play with one of the most exciting young actors in the title role. (And it will make a nice companion piece to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II starring David Tennant). Again, very little information about the remaining cast but Vanessa Kirby will play Isabella, a sign that things will be very interesting indeed.
I went to Ireland for the first time in October 1999 and although I have gone back a few times since, that first trip was the most personal: crossing the country from Galway to Dublin (which sounds impressive until you realise it’s only a couple of hours by car), hanging in pubs with irish friends, walking down country roads in a drizzle so fine you couldn’t be sure it was real, it all fits perfectly with irish folklore, except it isn’t. I have neither the measure of the place or the talent to make it justice, but Conor McPherson’s The Weir makes sense of those evenings when a story at the pub starts as a lark but quickly hits the bone, changing people’s lives. And Josie Rourke’s production, simple as it is stunning, delicate as it is robust, is a triumph of intimacy and storytelling. Continue reading
For pure heart-fluttering excitement, the combination of Shakespeare and big name actors is hard to beat. Macbeth and James McAvoy earlier this year, Richard II and David Tennant from October, and somewhere in the middle Othello with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear punctuate the theatrical year with spine tingling anticipation. Shakespeare’s plays breath with charismatic actors who can take reign of uncompromising characters, and Nic Hytner’s production, visceral and sharp, delivers in those terms.
Having said that, the first twenty minutes were not as promising. Pubs and alleyways and indistinct boardrooms, soldiers on leave in ill fitting civilian clothes (and ill at ease civilian mode), the setting was too drab to set the imagination alight. Landing on Cyprus, the story started gathering momentum, but it was Iago manipulating Cassio in one almighty brawl that set the production on its proper course. Once the seeds of jealousy and doubt are planted in Othello’s mind, the story started hurling to the finish like a wild horse: beautiful and scary and dangerous. Continue reading
In conversations about seminal productions of recent years, specifically seminal productions I have missed, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, performed at the National Theatre in 2010, often comes up. A russian classic, adapted by Andrew Upton, directed by Howard Davies, designed by Bunny Christie and with Paul Higgins and Justine Mitchell in the cast, made a huge impression to anyone who saw it. The current production of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, with many of the same people involved, inevitably carries high expectations. And they are not squandered.
Early 20th century Russia, the middle classes play and live in the protected bubble of self-delusion and good intentions while a new world is tearing down the gates. Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild) has a god-like insight into the future of science and cosmos but human interactions escape him (and he escapes them). His wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell), an intelligent earthy woman, desperately tries to connect her husband to herself and to the world, and her continuous failure wounds her deeply. His friend Boris (Paul Higgins) despises illusions and has clarity of vision, but his inability to act and affect change increasingly drains him of hope, with only his love for Liza giving him focus. Protasov’s sister Liza (Emma Lowndes), a vulnerable woman who feels the world as a stab, clings to, spars with and rebuffs Boris in equal measures. Other friends, lovers, work associates and servants swarm around the family, the focus of the community for generations and the eye of the hurricane to come.
Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia premiered at the National Theatre on April 13th 1993, 20 years ago. I am not inclined to remember these things, but recently I came across an old interview with Simon Russell Beale that got me thinking about that moment in time: Mr Beale was preparing for Richard III and wouldn’t do Hamlet for several years yet, Arcadia – the best play of all time – was just coming out to the world and I hadn’t the faintest idea I would eventually move to London and spent almost all my adult life in England.
I was still in Greece back then, flashed with young excitement of discovering things, and my most precious – and incomprehensible – obsession was Tom Stoppard. I had seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead*, the perfect text to discover when you are young, and I was spending many hours in the British Council library trying to read books beyond my command of the english language. I clearly remember the issue of Theatre Record with the reviews of Arcadia (this is a world without internet, and it’s hard to believe such a moment in time existed). I remember the reviews saying something about maths, and I really couldn’t understand how a play – any play – can be about maths. When I eventually saw the 2009 production at the Duke of York’s, everything was perfectly, gloriously clear. “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.”
But the story doesn’t finish here: Continue reading