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: Coriolanus (starring Tom Hiddleston), at the Donmar Warehouse

 Tom Hiddleston (Coriolanus), Hadley Fraser (Aufidius). Photo by Johan Persson

Tom Hiddleston (Coriolanus), Hadley Fraser (Aufidius). Photo by Johan Persson

The last time I saw Coriolanus on stage was at Gainsborough studios in 2000. I might not remember much about the production, but one thing impossible to forget was the space. The film studios had been turned into a theatrical space just before their demolition, creating a vast stage in front of a vast auditorium. It’s interesting that my second Coriolanus experience is at the Donmar Warehouse, which is the definition of a small space with vast ambitions.

Intimacy has always been the Donmar’s focus: at the first scene of Coriolanus, a child enters the stage and draws a line on the floor. It could be a playground game but this is war and things take a different turn. Soon there is enough hustle and bustle to suggest civil unrest and bloody battles. (The fight between Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus and Hadley Fraser’s Aufidius is particularly forceful. In such a small space it certainly makes an impact: nothing like being a yard away from swords macheting in the air). Ultimately though, it all comes back to that first image and to close familial relationships. In a thrilling scene at the senate, the speeches make political points as much as personal ones, and it’s this uneasy combination that gives the play its drive.

Continue reading

Review: The Winslow Boy, by Terence Rattigan at the Old Vic Theatre

Charlie Rowe as Ronnie Winslow. Photo Nobby Clark.

Charlie Rowe as Ronnie Winslow. Photo Nobby Clark.

What do Terence Rattigan and Mike Bartlett have in common? Making the town of Reading the butt of their jokes apparently. I shouldn’t start my review in such a facetious way, as this fine production of a near perfect play deserves better, but I can’t help it.

But let’s get back to the business at hand: Terence Rattigan’s play, about a small case fought with absolute conviction that justice can’t be measured in a balance sheet, feels fresh, unexpected and rich in every way. With its big themes, small distilled moments and perfectly observed relationships, it is a dream for any director and cast. And Lindsay Posner and his actors grab the opportunity and do it justice.

What I found irresistible is the play’s ability to surprise: Continue reading

Review: Timon of Athens at the National Theatre

Simon Russell Beale and company at Timon of Athens. Photo Johan Persson

At the interval of the National Theatre production, my friend revstan and I were having a quick peak at the wikipedia entry for Timon of Athens (we were wondering about authoring issues if you need to know), and immediately started questioning this wikipedia statement: “[Timon Of Athens] is generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most obscure and difficult works”. Watching the production directed by Nic Hytner, I can’t see what’s difficult about this play.

In fact, the first thought that crossed my mind when the performance started was how 21st century the play feels. I don’t merely mean it has contemporary echoes. The impression left by the production is that the play had to wait four hundred years to find its proper setting. When Flavia said: “They answer, in a joint and corporate voice, …”, I had to look the quote up and make sure Nic Hytner hadn’t tampered with the language (he hadn’t). Shakespeare’s plot, language and characters find the perfect setting in Hytner’s modern production (21st century London complete with Occupy tents, riots and renaming of art spaces after rich donors – wouldn’t it be fun to watch the production alongside the National’s rich corporate partners?) that it’s hard to think it done any other way. Continue reading