“Such stuff as dreams are made on”: John Heffernan as Hamlet

John Heffernan - with a crown - in Edward II. Photo Johan Persson

John Heffernan – with a crown – in Edward II. Photo Johan Persson

I always had a soft spot for John Heffernan. Besides the obvious (talent to knock your socks off, to be anything at any time, anywhere), he is also someone I caught from the start. In thirty years, when he is revered as a theatre great, I will be discreetly smug, having noticed early on (and having missed nothing ever since). When earlier in the week Jamie Lloyd said he wants to direct John Heffernan in Hamlet, my reaction was one of undignified excitement – while recognising the inevitability of it all. Of course, he will play Hamlet. The only question is when, where and with whom.

To that end, I decided to give Jamie Lloyd a helping hand and cast the rest of the production:

Claudius: I always wanted Claudius to be young, considerably younger than Hamlet’s father and only a few years older than the prince. Uncle and nephew grew up together, playmates, confidants and best friends. But close to adulthood, they took separate paths and Claudius started to be resentful in the knowledge he ‘d never be king, even though he is temperamentally suited to it more than the young prince. My first thought was to cast Tom Hiddleston, but in the end I decided he is too young and Michael Fassbender should get the part.

Gertrude: Despite her position, the queen is unwilling to do what is expected of her and surrender all her desires. Tilda Swinton is the rebel in any role. Not to mention unfathomably sexy. (If we can’t have Tilda Swinton, we should get Cate Blanchett).

The Ghost: Paul Rhys – both tender and a little bit frightening – doesn’t look like he could be John Heffernan’s father, but Hamlet was never his father’s son. There is much love between them, but also distrust as they don’t understand each other. Continue reading

You know you go to the theatre a lot when… (the sequel)

We are overdue for a little silliness. Here is the sequel – with a topical twist – to my list of Things that Suggest You Go to The Theatre A Lot:

1) Richard Bean’s play at the National Theatre is your first thought when the verdict to the phone hacking trial is announced. (With thanks to Shanine for saying this exact thing on twitter).

2) IMDB is increasingly useless in answering the question “I have seen this actor before but I can’t remember where”.

3) You are excited about the third actor billed in the poster. The first two, not so much. (This might be old-fashioned snobbery though).

4) When you hear the word “thrust”, you think of a thrust stage. Honestly, that’s sad.

5) When you hear of tennis balls, you think of Henry V, not Wimbledon. Quite right too. Continue reading

Review: The Valley of Astonishment, at the Young Vic Theatre

Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni Photo Simon Annand

Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni Photo Simon Annand

I rarely know much about a production before I see it and The Valley of Astonishment, devised by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, was no exception. I vaguely knew it was about synesthesia, the phenomenon of one sensory experience leading to automatic, involuntary experiences in other senses (numbers having colours, sounds having shapes, that kind of thing). If I had read the summary at the Young Vic website, I would have known The Valley of Astonishment is “a journey into the wonders of the human brain, inspired by years of neurological research, true stories and Farid Attar’s epic mystical poem The Conference of the Birds.”

And so it is. We meet Sammy Costas, played by Kathryn Hunter, a synesthete with remarkable memory who starts to use her skills in performing. Her experiences become the spine of the production. Along the way, we meet a number of other characters, most notably a man who has lost the sense of proprioception (the sense that allows us to know where our body parts are and how much effort is required in order to move them). He is paralysed, not because of nerve damage, but because he doesn’t know where his limbs are unless he looks at them.

It’s all hugely engaging, yet it feels like Incognito-light. Nick Payne’s play overflowed with ideas, where memory and brain functions and emotional resonance chased each other, vying for space in people’s lives and bodies. By comparison, The Valley of Astonishment seems tame. Continue reading

Review: TOOT’s Be Here Now, at the Shoreditch Town Hall

Terry O'Donovan and Clare Dunn. Photo Ludovic des Cognets

Terry O’Donovan and Clare Dunn. Photo Ludovic des Cognets

What do young people think when they see the initials TDK? A disease maybe? A bank? For a generation who reached adulthood in the eighties and nineties, TDK was the gate-keeper of teenage dreams. Analogue mixed tapes with the power to send you to heaven or crash you to hell. It wasn’t about the perfect song, it was about the perfect compilation and segueway, when sophistication lived or died from one three-minute pop song to the next.

TOOT’s new production Be Here Now captures the rawness of this energy: teenagers confiding in bedroom posters, obsessing over three-chord songs and fumbling over kisses and first loves. Everyone has a corner to fight, a corner utterly insignificant in itself but invested with so much meaning that is life transforming. The production is most interesting when it undermines the sweetness of memories with the imperfection of life. The meeting of eyes across a party has the sparkliness of dry ice and snow fall but the line between fantasy and reality plays nasty tricks on heartbroken souls. Continue reading

Review: Adler and Gibb, by Tim Crouch, at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs

Brian Ferguson, Denise Gough and Tim Crouch in rehearsal

Brian Ferguson, Denise Gough and Tim Crouch in rehearsal

I am not fond of plays that come with instructions but I feel I should issue one for Adler and Gibb, the new play by Tim Crouch currently staged at the Royal Court: for a significant part of the first half you will be thinking “I don’t know what the fuck is going on”. Persevere. Not only will it start to make sense, but some of the confusion will lent an anarchic – if not chaotic – bent to the whole thing.

The background of the story is summarised beautifully at the Royal Court website: “Janet Adler and Margaret Gibb were conceptual artists working in New York at the end of the last century. They were described by art critic Dave Hickey as the ‘most ferociously uncompromising voice of their generation’. With Adler’s death in 2004, however, the compromise began.” Tim Crouch tells some of this story and another one and another one. In fact he keeps telling the story long after the performance has finished. His playfulness and inventiveness fuels the experience.

One of the best things about the play is it communicates ambivalence about its existence the same way Adler and Gibb felt uncertain about their work and the value of art in general**. In that sense, the play is successful and profoundly faithful to its subject. It’s tricky to be engaging while being uncertain about your own worth (after all, why should the audience care if the play is uncertain about itself?). But Tim Crouch pulls it off. Which is the point for me: art is not different to life. It exists independently from the value we assign to it, or what the artist thinks of it. It can be good or bad, but it doesn’t need to justify itself no more than life does. Continue reading

Review (or something like it): Mr Burns by Anne Washburn, Almeida Theatre


The company - photo Manuel Harlan

The company – photo Manuel Harlan

Sometimes you need a get-out clause. It’s the plays and productions you don’t want to review, not for lack of things to say but because a conventional review would be a betrayal of the experience.

So let’s do it differently. Ten cryptic puzzles, ten reasons to see Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns. And remember, it doesn’t have to make sense. But you need to remember.

1) Between beginning and end, you will travel the greatest distance (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually) you have travelled in any play. You might experience g-force physical symptoms, not least your jaw dropping to the floor. Do not be alarmed. No harm will come to you.

2) It defies definitions of “good”, “bad”, “well-made”, “unconventional”. They are irrelevant.

3) It will tell you what kind of theatregoer you are. It’s not made for a good night out. Which is not to say it’s not enjoyable. But it’s made for theatre junkies and adventurers, those who boldly go where no man, woman or child has gone before.

4) Michael Shaeffer is weirdly sexy as Mr Burns. As is Justine Mitchell, especially with a wolf tail and work boots. Continue reading

Review: A Simple Space (by Gravity and Other Myths) – Udderbelly Festival, Southbank

A_Simple_Space_Gravity_And_Other_MythsSeven acrobats – five men and two women – pick their way through a series of challenges, the things a child would think of on a lazy afternoon. Except the challenges are really hard: can you solve a Rubik’s cube balancing on your head? Can you hold your breath longer than I can stand upside down? Can you backflip longer and faster than anyone else? Can you roll over me without touching the ground?

If A Simple Space was a person, it would be a cheeky five year old. Skipping rope with pants around his ankles. Or holding her breath jumping from sofa to armchair, pretending the floor is a river full of crocodiles. For all its physical daring and breathtaking precision, it’s the spirit of childhood that makes the show so much fun. Anyone remember Pippi Longstocking and the horse balancing on her head? It’s a bit like that but for real.

There is no set but the space has its own precise specifications: “4 metres wide x 6.5 metres deep with 6 metres overhead clearance. Audience wraps around front and sides”. Continue reading

Review: Polly Stenham’s Hotel at the Temporary theatre (previously known as The Shed), National Theatre

Shannon Tarbet as Frankie and Tom Rhys Harries as Ralph. Photo Kwame Lestrade

Shannon Tarbet as Frankie and Tom Rhys Harries as Ralph. Photo Kwame Lestrade

Some people object to Polly Stenham’s plays because she often keeps a narrow focus on familial – if not always familiar – dynamics. I am not one of those people. Her characters – insolent, poetic, unapologetically confused – don’t give in. But you give into them.

Nevertheless her new play Hotel breaks new thematic territory. This isn’t always obvious and it’s not always smooth. Contradictory themes don’t so much blend but crash into each other with considerable force. I hesitate to expand for fear of spoilers but let’s say betrayal, accountability, consequences, violence and international aid all come into focus. Much of the play is not what it seems. Much of life is not what it seems.

With a running time of 80 minutes, the story gallops at a breathless pace. Maria Aberg’s direction keeps it on track, quite an achievement as often the play feels like a stampede. I admire Stenham’s lack of restraint and bold moral approach but she doesn’t go deep enough on any of her themes. She opens doors but lets them flapping in the wind. I would have been happy to hear any of her stories. When the adrenaline buzz settled, I could hear none.

The play was at its brilliant best in character moments: Continue reading