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: Liolà by Luigi Pirandello, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton stage

Aisling O’Sullivan as Croce Azzara, Rory Keenan as Liola. Photo Catherine Ashmore

Aisling O’Sullivan as Croce Azzara, Rory Keenan as Liola. Photo Catherine Ashmore

What does a Luigi Pirandello play look like? A lightness of touch that balances on darker themes, a life force that smashes through existential and moral questions, singing, live music, sunshine. On the evidence of Liolà, all these statements would be true. But Liolà is not a typical Pirandello play, “so light-hearted it doesn’t seem like one of my works” as the author himself admitted. In the National theatre production, directed by Richard Eyre in a version by Tanya Ronder, the tension between Pirandello’s darker preoccupations and the sensual drive of the story make for a delicious spiky treat.

Sicily, summer 1916. Baking sun, almond crops, barefoot children climbing trees. At the centre of it all, Liolà, a young man comfortable in his own skin, unburdened by convention, blazes through life, meets women, makes babies. His seductive power should be destructive but somehow it’s healing. Nimble-footed and nimble-spirited, he has the universe at his fingers (the live band stops playing at his slightest of signs) and turns magic tricks into the real deal. It’s a joy to watch Rory Keenan seduce every breathing soul in the room Continue reading

Review: Quartermaine’s Terms, by Simon Gray, at the Wyndhams (starring Rowan Atkinson)

Rowan Atkinson as St John Quartermaine. Photo by Nobby Clark.

Rowan Atkinson as St John Quartermaine. Photo by Nobby Clark.

“I mean these things between people – people one cares for – it’s hard to bear them“. In the middle of the play, this words uttered by St John Quartermaine, land like a bomb. Quickly the moment passes. Most other characters try not to feel, and only care up to a point, they have considerations, alliances, careers, plans to distract them.  St John Quartermaine, played by Rowan Atkinson, has nothing but the staff room at this English school for foreigners.

Simon Gray’s play, written more than 30 years ago, is set in the fringes of Cambridge academia. Tweed jackets, heavy bookcases, leather chairs and croquet, but also frustration as none of these professors play with the big boys. In many other ways, it’s a depressingly modern workplace. Co-workers talk of lifelong friendships and bonds between them, but time and again practicalities get in the way.  Efficiency marches in, the weakest links are cut loose. Leave any man behind. Continue reading

Review: The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, by Nick Dear, at the Almeida

Pip Carter as Edward Thomas. Photo Nobby Clark

In the end it was the smell that did it. I admit it, it’s an unusual thing to praise a stage production for but it’s the first thing you notice entering the Almeida auditorium: the smell of damp earth. And for someone like me, who worries that poetic might be just another word for vague and anaemic, it was the perfect calling card. The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, written by Nick Dear and directed with extreme assurance by Richard Eyre, might be about words and art and poetry but it’s the smells and sounds that take centre stage.

The second thing that makes an impression is the space: the whole of the Almeida stage is open and uncluttered save for some balls of hay and the dark damp earth. All scenes, in people’s living rooms or the streets of London, take place upon dark soil. A few weeks back, I complained that the sand on the Donmar stage made Berenice look uncertain. Here the effect is exactly the opposite: everything is grounded, even Edward Thomas’ ghosts or flights of fancy.

The production is blessed with cracking performances: Continue reading