(Not a) review: Chris Thompson’s A Film About Someone You Love, at Finborough theatre, part of Vibrant 2014 festival

Vibrant Festival Finborough 2014It hardly comes as a surprise that Chris Tompson’s play A Film About Someone You Love is, well, about love. But there is a catch. Not cuddly love, or even destructive one, but rather distortive. Love as a distorting mirror and a puzzle and an unreliable narrator. Which is bad news if your sense of self depends on love offered, accepted, received. Which it does. For everyone. Why is it so much easier to rely on cruel lies than on muddled truths?

The play is fairly single-minded in pursuing its subject and turning the focus on different kinds of love: friends, siblings, lovers, couples, mothers and daughters. It’s a testament to both play and staging that two hours of people talking and stumbling around the most tender (if absurd) corners of their lives never got boring. The tone is finely judged and recklessly engaging: everyone’s truths are both ridiculous and dangerous around the edges. So are their lies. There isn’t a dividing line between comedy and tragedy, in fact comedy is a tragedy that is having a nervous breakdown. The staging was equally confident, led by rich silences and tense pauses.

Doon Machichan’s Sophie Batten, mother of two daughters, has the brittle determination of the survivor, when everything is very funny until it’s not. Joanna Horton’s Ellie Batten had a difficult opaque quality, the more direct her approach the less transparent her heart. Shannon Tarbet as Lea Batten was formidably unpleasant and fragile in the same breath. Ashley Zhangazha’s Monday was profoundly and hilariously bewildered by his reaction to his own life.

My favourite character was Adam, as played by Felix Scott. Continue reading

Review: Tis Pity She’s a Whore, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe

Fiona Button as Annabella, Max Bennett as Giovanni. Photo Simon Kane

Fiona Button as Annabella, Max Bennett as Giovanni. Photo Simon Kane

Something happens twenty minutes into John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore, as performed at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse. Up until that point, I knew I was watching a hugely engaging production of a very fine play. Fluid, clear, intelligent. But at the beginning of the second act, in the scene where Giovanni and Annabella are in bed together, having made love for the first time, things are revealed for what they are. It’s not that the production changes gear, it is the audience catching up. The intense intimacy of falling in love ripples from stage to audience, tender, delicate, exposed to light – like camera film. Should we be here? Who is watching whom? And who is guilty of forbidden acts?

And then you get it. This production of Tis Pity She’s a Whore is going to be thrillingly hot. Not only in a high-minded way, or even in a carnal way – although both these are true – but forbidden, dangerous. The candlelight is fire and danger as much as it is shadows and trembling beauty. This is the achievement of Michael Longhurst’s production: without rewriting the play, he welds together themes of forbidden love with this cradle of a space, the breathing-fire quality of the text with feverish, sharp action. The result brims with exquisite life (and therefore death).

After that, everything falls into place and gains huge momentum. Max Bennett and Fiona Button, Giovanni and Annabella, brother and sister and lovers, fit perfectly and tenderly together, hands blindly seeking, breaths synching. It’s physics as much as anything else, bodies orbiting each other. Nature versus nature, sibling relationship versus cosmic powers. 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: Eve Best throws a rose to the audience (Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s Globe)

Yesterday, it was the last performance of Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe and Duncan (Shakespeare aficionado extraordinaire) captured this beautiful photo at the curtain call: Eve Best throws a rose to the audience, while Clive Wood kneels at the background and the rest of the cast looks on.

The composition is perfect and the post performance energy – especially the exuberance of the last performance – is sharply  distilled.

Duncan’s other photos (most of them around Shakespearean performance) are beautiful too, and he writes a mean Shakespearean blog (mean as in excellent, not as in unkind!)

RSC’s Richard II and Jez Butterworth’s Mojo: last performances and theatre as pop culture

Ben Whishaw, Rupert Grint, Colin Morgan, Daniel Mays, Brendan Coyle. Photo Nigel Norrington

Ben Whishaw, Rupert Grint, Colin Morgan, Daniel Mays, Brendan Coyle. Photo Nigel Norrington

Last night was an important night in the calendar. It was the last performance of Mojo at the Harold Pinter theatre, and that would have been significant enough, but for me it was also the official end of theatrical 2013, a vintage year by all accounts. Others are articulate in analysing cutting edge trends, but what I loved about 2013 was the abundance of productions that generated feverish excitement. In the last few months of the year, London theatres were full of people bouncing from Richard II to Coriolanus, Americhan Psycho to Mojo, but also productions without major stars: The Light Princess at the National, or The Pride at Trafalgar studios. Earlier in the year, Edward II (again at the National), Macbeth at Trafalgar and the Cripple of Inishmaan at Noel Coward had similar audiences.

Not all productions had been sold out successes and some of the enthusiasm was instigated and channelled through the presence of a famous actor, but what I loved was the absence of austere and po-faced reactions. Some people took these productions to their (fannish) heart and tumblr exploded with the sublime and the ridiculous. Continue reading

Review: Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, at the Young Vic

Juliet Stevenson as Winnie. Photo Johan Persson

Juliet Stevenson as Winnie. Photo Johan Persson

This is going to be less a review than any other. Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days – not to be confused with Happy Days the musical, currently on tour – is, to me, completely disarming. Part Rorschach test, part word porn, part the noises of one’s dying sanity, it’s hallucinatory as much as anything. It’s intoxicating, unknowable, almost sinful. It’s hard to know where my critical eye (as weak and easily seduced as it is) lost its way.

Winnie talks. She has nothing but talk. Willie is present but out of (her) sight. Do people exist when we don’t see them? Is our voice meaningful if no one hears it? Is death real if no one witnesses it?

Happy Days  is some times discussed as a triumph of resilience. But isn’t that too straight a reading for such unfathomable play? Continue reading

Review: The Light Princess, a new musical by Tori Amos, National theatre, Lyttelton stage

The-Light-Princess_posterThere are productions when I want to dispense with any pretence of articulate thought and gush like an overexcited teenager. They are not merely good, they reclaim something fundamental about theatre as a wild ride. The Light Princess is such a theatrical adventure.

Adapted as a musical by Tori Amos and Samuel Adamson from a Scottish fairy tale published in 1864, Marianne Elliott’s production brings together many things I love about theatre: restrictions of live performance – where laws of gravity and physical space need to be obeyed – become a virtue and not a hindrance. Continue reading

Peter’s and Alice’s last date: Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench bid farewell to the Noel Coward theatre

Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, after a performance on the set of Peter and Alice

Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, after a performance on the set of Peter and Alice

I don’t go enough to last nights. I am far too impatient and the lure of previews is strong. (There is no elation like experiencing a great new play when hardly anyone, definitely not the people who shaped it, knows how great it is). But the joy of theatre is that every night is different and as previews have a fresh edgy excitement, performances later in the run have maturity and depth.

On the other hand, last nights have a delicious bittersweet recklessness where the play often breaks free, some times with revelatory results. And more than any other performance, there is conspiracy in the air, actors and audience together in an end-of-the-world party. John Logan’s Peter and Alice had its last performance last night, and while the play is still not perfect (occasionally getting backed into a corner as much as its characters), the performance was a joy and a fitting farewell to a production that brought together Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench, two of Britain’s most luminous stage stars, a couple of generations apart but so close in every other way. Continue reading

Review: Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios (starring James McAvoy)

macbeth trafalgar studios posterShould I start at the beginning or the end? The very good or the not so good? Any way you look at it, Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth at the Trafalgar studios (or Trafalgar Transformed as it’s being rebranded) is a play of two halves: until the interval, I was happy to declare it one of the best productions in recent memory. After the interval, it lost momentum and struggled to regain focus.

Some problems in the second half are due to long absences of the protagonist: his name is above the title and his performance shows he deserves it.  James McAvoy accommodates the soldier, the husband, the friend and the killer with surprising ease. The words dance out of his mouth fresh and unexpected. His Macbeth is clear eyed about moral consequences though unapologetic about his choices. Apparitions, ghosts and bloody daggers hang around him as much as in him. He fights them as much as he welcomes them. It’s a fearless commanding performance of light and shade, and it fuels the production. Continue reading