Review: The James Plays by Rona Munro, Olivier stage (a co-production of the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain)

James McArdle as James I. Photo Manuel Harlan

James McArdle as James I. Photo Manuel Harlan

Some reviews come difficult and with some, I want to say everything at once. I can’t type fast enough, or think fast enough, like skipping and sliding and tripping across the immense pleasure of seeing the production and wanting to get it out there.

Because this is the thing about The James Plays. You can talk about themes (and Rona Munro leaves no stone unturned) and sweeping vision and the pregnancy of the ideas and the magnificence of the execution but what comes down to is the sheer pleasure and energy and balls of it all. It’s history plays with the audacity to be anything they want to be. What better way to set the ideas free than to sew them into the fabric of the play?

Talking of ideas, it’s obvious – but no less true – that it is about Scotland. It is. Always. Never forget that. But the specificity of the story allows it to be personal to everyone. It is about this country and then it is about every country. It is about loving and fighting what’s closer to you. It’s about men and women, together, separate, alone. It’s about death. Always.  It’s about fathers and sons. It’s about helpless, infuriating love, for a person, for a country. It’s about finding truth in yourself despite having no choices. It’s about sex. Always. And it’s about joy. About one clear day when everything is perfect.

The language has so much strength that, you imagine, with lesser actors, would break everyone in half. Continue reading

Review: Electra (starring Kristin Scott Thomas) at the Old Vic theatre

Electra Old Vic posterIt took me a long time to decide what I wanted to say about the Old Vic production of Sophocles’ Electra, directed by Ian Rickson. My lack of clarity is mostly because I wanted to like it more than I did. It gets many things right, it has integrity, it has a strong character. Still it never caught fire in my imagination.

Sophocles’ Electra is a simple story, at least when it comes to plot. Without giving much away, Electra waits for someone, unlike Godot he arrives. Much of the play it’s people describing what happened, either in the distant or recent past. What happened is important to them, to the point of risking their lives and their future. It’s linked to values and the gods and a changing world. At its best it’s ideas grabbing people by the throat.

Electra is a complicated character and 2500 years since the play was written have added layers of ambiguity. She is strong and determined, unwavering, fanatical. She is also committed to patriarchical values: she takes her father’s side and defends the values he represents. (Agamemnon – although murdered – is far from an innocent victim. He tricked his wife into sacrificing their daughter, then went to war for ten years and expected that his wife would stay behind and wait for him). Were these values unambiguous for audiences two millenia ago? If so, they aren’t any more.

The first time we see Kristin Scott Thomas, her hair is hidden under a scarf, giving her face the appearance of a skull. Continue reading

Review: The Wolf From The Door, by Rory Mullarkey – at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

Sophie Russell, Calvin Demba as Leo, Anna Chancellor as Catherine, Pearce Quigley. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Sophie Russell, Calvin Demba as Leo, Anna Chancellor as Catherine, Pearce Quigley. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Cards on the table and without ambiguity, I didn’t like Rory Mullarkey’s The Wolf From the Door. It’s been a while since I disliked a play in such comprehensive manner.  It wasn’t the lack of promise, quite the opposite. It starts with an idea that has meat on its bones: is apathy just a smoke screen? What will it take for middle england to take (decisive, surprising, violent) action? And would anyone notice if we were there already?

Except the play doesn’t go far: it imagines a situation where this would happen. Posh Lady Catherine picks up young drifter Leo on a train station. Any other woman would do it for sex but not her. She wants to anoint him ruler of the land. Everything is ready, the people are waiting. And blood will be spilt. Among the allotments and the supermarket alleys. Not so much Carnation Revolution but Revolution and flower arrangements. Continue reading

James McAvoy does pop up Shakespeare at Trafalgar studios (and smashes it out of the park)

James McAvoy Rehearsed Reading Trafalgar studiosYou have to forgive me for what I am about to do. I don’t do it often and I don’t do it lightly. I have been going to the theatre long enough to know the unknown actor who has three lines will dazzle you and the big name headlining the production might leave you cold (or more likely, crack under the pressure). Then again, some big names are big names for a reason. On my way to Trafalgar studios for the one off event titled “The Moment Before I am Powerful” (a series of Shakespearean monologues riffing on power), I discovered James McAvoy was in the cast. This was excellent news: a baby-faced actor with a mischievous disposition, McAvoy has a knack for reluctant superheroes and Shakespearean generals and junkie cops in meltdown and nerds and gambling addicts. And I loved his Macbeth. To put it mildly and with some restraint, I was excited.

Even so, I was quite unprepared for what happened next: this is a rehearsed reading, actors are relaxed and don’t go about it at full whack (they hardly had any rehearsal after all). Lauren O’Neil did the “Speak the speech, I pray you” from Hamlet, and Deborah Findlay was a sharply moving Volumnia, even more so than I remembered from the full production of Coriolanus last year. Paapa Essiedu materialised from under a desk (was he there the whole time?) to be a playful Mark Antony and Cynthia Erivo was beautiful as his Cleopatra.

And then, James McAvoy did Mark Antony from Julius Caesar, Act III Scene II, all the speeches from “Friends, Romans, countrymen” onwards. Off book. Continue reading

Review: Ballyturk by Enda Walsh, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton stage

Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi. Photo Patrick Redmond

Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi. Photo Patrick Redmond

Describing Ballyturk is a challenge, a riddle and an emotional rollercoaster disguised as an intellectual exercise: it’s like having an existential crisis and a stroke and a panic attack, all rolled into one but with songs and dancing and talc powder and yellow jumpers and jenga towers of biscuits and fierce words and fiercer silences.  12 seconds lasting a lifetime. 12 seconds of a lifetime, yet too short for any questions to be answered. If time is worthless when it is aplenty, does it worth more when running out? Do we forget before we know what to remember? If the now consumes everything, what is the value of yesterday?

Enda Walsh the creator and Enda Walsh the destroyer sets up a crib sheet of answers before we know the questions, and then tears them apart. Continue reading

Review: Maxine Peake as Hamlet, at the Royal Exchange Manchester

Maxine Peake as Hamlet

Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Photo Jonathan Keenan

It’s the holy grail, Hamlet made fresh and distinct and specific and alive. You read it on every interview and every programme. Except how do you do that? Director Sarah Frankcom and company at the Royal Exchange Manchester found the way to a version of the play that – while it doesn’t do everything the play can do – is fearless, personal and closer to the heart than possibly any other Hamlet I have seen. It shakes the play’s heaviness and with immense confidence creates a world where ideas have an exhilarating quality and a whole layer of skin and grime has been scraped.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet is a cross between a warrior angel (one of the beautiful lovelorn angels Philip Pullman writes) and the Little Prince. Unselfconsciously wise, relentless in gouging the truth out of everything, occasionally scary, earthy and alien, warm and mischievous and never more himself than when he laughs. While his insanity is not entirely an act, he is unperturbed by it. He knows something beyond the obvious. He is trapped at the beginning of the play, he finds a mission and a way out when he meets the Ghost, and goes home at the end of it. Peake is scorchingly good, above all in her ability to connect and hold the world at the palm of her hand: this Hamlet could raise an army if he wanted, and we are it. Continue reading

Photo of the week: Frances de la Tour as Hamlet (1979)

Frances de la Tour as Hamlet. Photo Donald Cooper

Frances de la Tour as Hamlet. Photo Donald Cooper

Tonight it’s the first performance of Maxine Peake’s Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Manchester, undoubtedly one of the most exciting theatrical propositions of recent months, and definitely the Hamlet I most look forward to.

The last notable female Hamlet produced in the UK was in 1979 at the Half Moon theatre, with Frances de la Tour in the title role. It’s alarming to think that’s 35 years ago, which means no one at my age could be reasonably expected to have seen a woman play the part.

This is what Plays and Players wrote about the Frances de la Tour production:

“In a square room flanked by props and scenery around the walls the audience is ushered to stand or sit wherever they can. It was soon realised once the production had got under way that there was nowhere safe to sit. The steps leading to a raised platform were the way to the castle battlements where the ghost of the late King Hamlet walks and where silver reflectors pick up the eerie light thrown from his shroud. A stage to the left of it becomes the room in Polonius’s house, a corridor in the castle, the stage where the Players enact the murder of the King, the Queen’s apartment and where it dips and rises on a slant, a panel is removed to disclose the grave where Ophelia will lie. At the corner is another part of Polonius’s house and along the wall from that an enormous throne, like a carved seated skeleton of a man.” Continue reading

Review: Wingman by Richard Marsh at the Soho Theatre

Wingman - Richard Marsh - Produced by Tim Johanson Productions - Edinburgh Festival/Soho Theatre Richard Marsh - plays Richard Marsh/Bridgitte Jerome Wright - plays Dad Directed by Justin Audibert

Jerome Wright and Richard Marsh. Photo Robert Workman

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, Philip Larkin said in his famous poem, and even if it doesn’t apply to everyone to the same degree, it’s an assertion that stood the test of time. Richard Marsh explores that very truth, probably a little less angrily, definitely more humorously and – to keep with the poem theme – with a surprisingly amount of rhyming.

Marsh starts his monologue (and monologue it is, even though another character enters soon) as a lighter version of Nick Payne’s The Art of Dying, and admittedly this is a strange path to take but soon enough, the narration takes a different turn: the enforced reunion of father and son after twenty years takes the form of a road trip and the ghost (of Christmas past, present and future?) that you can’t shake. Father wants to stick around, son thinks he wants to move away. Then new babies and new relationships (in that order) come along and he doesn’t know what to think or what he wants.

The text is often very funny

Continue reading

Review: Titus Andronicus at the Bold Tendencies Peckham multi-storey car park

Christine Entwisle as Tamora and Adam Burton as Titus. Photo Hala Mufieh

Christine Entwisle as Tamora and Adam Burton as Titus. Photo Hala Mufieh

The play is the thing and the location is the play. As you enter the disused car park at the side of the Peckham cinema multiplex (past the dumpsters, down the alley, through a narrow metal door), you are greeted with posters (“Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind immersive experience!”) and signs guiding you to levels seven and eight. Titus Andronicus produced by The Theory of Everything and Restless Buddha makes a firm promise, with the writing – literally – on the wall. Does it deliver? It does when it counts and in its own terms.

Sprawled in the car parking space of level seven, the production – directed by Pia Furtado – is notable for its energy, atmosphere and the marriage of setting and text. Its world – turf wars with a touch of sixties car culture – is immediately recognisable as a place where human life has little value. In that context, the text sits comfortably but not passively. It hurls and jumps as much as the actors do. Words are lithe and the production’s physicality has its own brutal poetry: men crawl and hang from the ceiling, bodies disappear through metal doors, threat drips everywhere. Blinding car lights flood the long strip of concrete and suddenly it’s car races at the edge of a cliff. Continue reading

Quiz: Guess the play from the stage direction

The cover of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust that contains Starman. The cover of the vinyl edition clearly makes an appearance in play no 2

The cover of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust that contains Starman. The cover of the vinyl edition clearly makes an appearance in play no 2

Last week, the Guardian posted a quiz about stage directions and naturally I thought I could do better. Ten stage directions, guess the play, no multiple choice but a clue. Some times the clues are more fun than the question itself.

1. “He picks up the tortoise and moves it a few inches as though it had strayed, on top of some loose papers, and admonishes it.” Clue: That should be easy enough. Additional help: the play premiered at the National Theatre in 1993.

2. “He puts the stylus on the record: ‘Starman’ by David Bowie”. Clue: it’s the only play in the list currently performing in London. For an additional clue, look at the caption of the photo.

3. “A full bottle of wine is handed to James. He drinks half of it while the others cheer, but has to stop and take a breath. He staggers. Even Rachel stops her clearing-up to watch”. Clue: The play has been turned into a film, released in the UK in September.

4. “He puts on some music. He takes a knife and cuts the fish. He puts the fish in the oven. Pulls a cork, then chops some vegetables.” Clue: if you have seen the play, you will definitely remember this scene. Additional help: the play will premiere in Broadway soon, with a high-profile actor playing the male character. Continue reading