Review: Belvoir Sydney’s The Wild Duck, by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan after Henrik Ibsen, at the Barbican

Anita Hegh as Gina. Photo Heidrun Löhr

Anita Hegh as Gina. Photo Heidrun Löhr

Anything I perceive to threaten intimacy between actors and audience is bound to make me suspicious, if not outright hostile. Stage to ceiling glass on three sides separating actors and audience is not the way to win my heart, but that’s the first thing you see at the beginning of The Wild Duck, in a version by the Belvoir Sydney theatre company. This and an actual live duck looking at you behind the glass. I felt ambivalent to say the least. As ambivalent one can feel looking at a duck preening its feathers.

How wrong was I? Yes, the actors perform behind a glass screen in what looks like a square box, they wear mikes and the sound is explicitly designed for their voices to be heard through speakers, yet all these – and several other elements – build into something unbearably intimate, like skin on skin or the blood rushing in your ears. And if my first thought was around a contradiction (what kind of connection can be achieved with so many elements designed to separate?), it turns out the whole production is designed around contradictions: Bare open stage and mirroring distortions, very few props but a live duck, baroque music but unsentimental performances. I can’t pretend to understand how these contradictions work but it felt like this: a multifaceted onslaught – elegant yet relentless – that corrodes the defences. Continue reading

Review: Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Almeida theatre

Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald Alving.  Photo Hugo Glendinning

Lesley Manville as Helene Alving and Jack Lowden as Oswald Alving. Photo Hugo Glendinning

Between new plays and Shakespeare performed in modern dress, it seems it’s only the late nineteenth century playwrights who are performed in period setting any more (the odd production by Benedict Andrews notwithstanding). All joking aside, there is a special challenge – but also revelation – when the period setting comes alive to carry the heart of the play in a timeless way.

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Almeida, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, is such a pleasure. The story of a family in the course of an evening, when five people are connected in different – sometime unexpected – ways and the ghosts of the past strangle the present. It’s not other people’s but one’s choices that haunt the play. And that ultimate crime of all, to be untrue to one’s self.

The production has simplicity and confidence and a rare unhurried richness. Set and lighting are grave but not dour. If joy is in short supply in this place, it is vividly suggested that it lives elsewhere and people can – and should – find it for the salvation of their souls. The wood and glass and tapestry of the set are like a magic mirror – unbearable one moment, warm and comforting the next. Continue reading

Review: Henrik Ibsen’s Public Enemy at the Young Vic

Niall Ashdown and Darrell D'Silva. Photo Keith Pattison

Niall Ashdown as Aslaksen and Darrell D’Silva as the Mayor. Photo Keith Pattison

More than a century after its first performance, Henrik Ibsen’s Public Enemy (or An Enemy of the People as it’s better known) remains a play so relevant it’s tempting to think it has been updated for 21st century sensibilities: a scientist discovers that the town spa – the lifeline of the local economy – is polluted. Financial interests, corruption, betrayal and hypocrisy combine for an explosive mix of public and private tragedy. The human nature at its more complex, the attraction of the play is obvious.

For the longest time into the Young Vic production of Ibsen’s play (directed by Richard Jones in a new version by David Harrower), I was unconvinced by its approach. Continue reading

Review: Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic

Adrian Scarborough as George Tesman and Sheridan Smith as Hedda Gabler. Photo Johan Persson

Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic, with Sheridan Smith in the title role, was always destined to be a much talked production: a successful star in a famous and demanding role is catnip for the media: I expect that, come Thursday morning, the headline “Is Sheridan Smith’s Hedda a hit?” will show up in the papers – hopefully in the front page. But theatre isn’t meant to be a test, and without a hint of nervousness or acknowledging the expectations, this production, directed with huge confidence by Anna Mackmin, bypasses the media hype and does what great theatre should do: it’s thrilling, visceral and fresh.

I ‘ll start with the set (designed by Lez Brotherston), partly because it’s the first thing we see: multiple glass panels and huge windows, they create depth but also give out a bottomless feeling, like if someone could fall into this world and never manage to come up for air. First scene, at night, Hedda silently stalks the house like a ghost and admittedly, this made me a bit nervous: I am not a big fan of additional scenes bolted at the beginning of a play, seemingly for the star to appear first. But soon it became clear I had nothing to be nervous about: the production, as well as beautiful to look at (the costumes alone are a marvel), brings this world alive and makes you look at it with fresh eyes. Continue reading

Review: A Doll’s House at the Young Vic

Hattie Morahan (Nora) and Dominic Rowan (Torvald). Photo by Johan Persson

It’s hard for me to imagine what audiences thought of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House when it premiered in Copenhagen in 1879. Even today, the choices Nora makes at the end of the play have the power to shock (I can imagine a fair amount of tongues wagging if that was to happen in a respectable middle class family today). On the other hand, the triumph of the Young Vic production is not the feminist politics, it’s the people: passionate, relatable, likable people we want to see them through their tough times. It doesn’t quite work that way.

The production, directed by Carrie Cracknell in a new version of the play by Simon Stephens, is set in the 19th century, but it doesn’t have the buttoned up quality of period pieces:  Nora (as played by Hattie Morahan) and Torvald (as played by Dominic Rowan) are an immensely sexy couple. Not just beautiful, but full of desire. This is not late 19th century as seen in Cranford. They are respectable in front of other people, but essentially they can’t keep their hands off each other. They are in love, even if they don’t begin to understand each other. Which makes the end of the play all the more heartbreaking: the conflict in the final scene is raw, desperate, physical. The production has a beating pulse going through it, not least because of the immediacy of Simon Stephens’ writing. Continue reading