List: Top ten theatre productions for January to June 2014

Lloyd Owen as Mike and Imelda Staunton as Margaret in Good People. Photo Johan Persson

Lloyd Owen as Mike and Imelda Staunton as Margaret in Good People. Photo Johan Persson

In a pattern frequently repeated in my life, I am about six weeks late in posting my top ten list from the first half of the year. I could have easily moved on, but 2014 is shaping into a vintage year, and I wanted to put a mark in the sand before the end of the year top ten becomes a hard and merciless business. In strict alphabetical order, the best – and favourite – productions of the first six months of 2014.

A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic (aka the Revival): it’s hard to describe how brilliant Arthur Miller’s A View from The Bridge was. Directed by Ivo Van Hove with Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone, text, acting and directorial decisions came together in a seamless union. The result was a beating heart at the palm of your hand, exhilarating and horrifying in equal measures. Eddie Carbone describing the smell of coffee will stay with me forever. What do we remember, heh?

Birdland at the Royal Court (aka the Rock descent into hell): Simon Stephens’ Birdland is not perfect. Yet it lodged under my skin more than other – more perfect (and yes, I know I shouldn’t be using a comparative construct) – productions. It had the blackest black and an aching at its bones. You can see home but you can never go back.

Blurred Lines at the Shed, National Theatre (aka the feminist rock concert): in a line of plays constructed like jazz music (pieces coming together and apart at will), Nick Payne’s and Carrie Cracknell’s Blurred Lines was incendiary, prickly and put the cat among the pigeons. And it was fun. Continue reading

Review: August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, Minerva theatre, Chichester

Rosalie Craig and Shaun Evans in Miss Julie. Photo Manuel Harlan

Rosalie Craig and Shaun Evans in Miss Julie. Photo Manuel Harlan

It’s well-known Black Comedy starts in complete darkness but in the double bill at the Minerva theatre in Chichester, so does August Strindberg‘s Miss Julie. A couple of seconds of pitch black until a match strikes and an oil lamp is lit. The Minerva stage has been transformed to an airy and welcoming kitchen of a 19th century mansion. Despite the oil lamp and other equipment, the set wears its period elements lightly. Squint a little and you could be in a modern – if rustic – house. Contemporary echoes run through the whole of the production, a lot of them due to the new adaptation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. If that weakens the social focus of the story, it brings other pleasures.

The story is preoccupied with class and social mores: the action is set in the kitchen and we are always aware this is working class territory. It’s midsummer’s night, and the mistress of the house starts a cat and mouse sexual game with one of the senior servants. Before the night is out, the power dynamics have shifted several times and in different directions. The strict class structure of 19th century households has no equivalent in 21st century western societies (where social inequality manifests itself in other ways) and the production doesn’t duel on that. The tragedy becomes one of people trapped in their own preconceptions. We have the sense they could escape if they dared to do so. It’s a rich and immediately relatable perspective. Continue reading

Billie Piper in the new Richard Bean play at the National, Ivo van Hove directs Juliette Binoche in Antigone and more

Billie Piper (with Jonjo O'Neill) in The Effect, the last National Theatre production she appeared in. Photo Ellie Kurtz

Billie Piper (with Jonjo O’Neill) in The Effect, the last National Theatre production she appeared in. Photo Ellie Kurtz

In an infrequent series of posts, these are the theatre news that got me excited in recent weeks:

– Word is Billie Piper is in rehearsals for the new Richard Bean play at the National. The play – with the provisional title Hacked – is directed by Nic Hytner, revolves around the phone hacking scandal and should start performances at the Lyttelton as early as June. As there is no official announcement regarding performance dates or tickets yet, the National Theatre is cutting it very fine with this one.

– Another company cutting it fine is the new Jamie Lloyd season at the Trafalgar studios: after the announcement a month ago that Martin Freeman will be playing Richard III with performances starting in July, no further information has been forthcoming. I loved the trio of plays produced last year and I look forward to the new season with – hopefully – a full programme announced soon.

– In other exciting news, Ivo Van Hove will be directing Juliette Binoche in Antigone, with performances at the Barbican next year. Continue reading

Review: Much Ado About Nothing at the Royal Exchange Manchester

Ellie Piercy as Beatrice, Paul Ready as Benedick. Photo Jonathan Keenan

Ellie Piercy as Beatrice, Paul Ready as Benedick. Photo Jonathan Keenan

Maria Aberg’s As You Like It, performed in Stratford for the Royal Shakespeare Company last summer, was as beautiful and joyous as a Shakespearean production (or any theatre) can be. Her current production of Much Ado About Nothing for the Royal Exchange Manchester almost scales the same heights – indeed it does in most aspects but for minor reservations.

This is the second Much Ado in recent months set in the second world war. It captures a time of common purpose but also uncertainty, exhilaration and scarcity of means. Away from the battlefields, the men are weary and out of place, the women are in charge in a way previously unthinkable. With the character of Leonato changing sex – and played beautifully by Marty Cruickshank – there is a clear vision of women taking control and changing the world. In that sense, the lies targeted at Hero aren’t a random conspiracy but an ugly throwback threatening a better future.

The spectre of war is subtly present, no more so than when Benedick reasons “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married”. Continue reading

Review: In the Republic of Happiness, by Martin Crimp, at the Royal Court Theatre

republicofhappinessSeveral unexpected questions occurred to me during the performance of In The Republic of Happiness: At what level of collective boredom am I allowed to get my phone out and start surfing? How close to the edge of a row do you have to be to leave in the middle of a performance? Do the actors feel as trapped as I do?

Martin Crimp’s In The Republic of Happiness is an unusual play. Ian used the word “daring”. Is that enough? A rant of low level misanthropy and verbal violence, some of it set to songs, it could have been interesting if it wasn’t so stubbornly unprocessed – and ultimately unprocessable. Individual sentences possess elegance and beauty. Collectively, they make less sense – and have less poise – than a man ranting on a street corner. Continue reading