Review: Jez Butterworth’s The River at the Royal Court Upstairs

“No one else has ever seen it. I ‘ve never shown it to anyone”. Jez Butterworth’s The River is a small jewel of a play, drilling a hole into the lies and truths and uncertainties of love, or that place before love when a look can seal the deal or destroy everything. It’s poetic and a bit magical, and funny enough (in fact very funny at places) to blow away any cobwebs of pretentiousness. This place is real, but it might be the kind of real you never come across in everyday life.

The production, as directed by Ian Rickson, strikes a great balance between this magical poetic place and a realistic approach that brings delicate flavours into sharp relief (the cooking metaphors are not entirely out of place). From the set (the kitchen of a wooden cabin complete with oven, white curtains and a window seat) to lighting (kerosene lamps and transparent sunrises) the attention to detail is geared towards ultra realism. The pace is precise and beautiful. Occasionally it slows down to five minutes without dialogue and in those moments we were transfixed: Dominic West gutting a fish and chopping vegetables for several minutes was as fascinating as anything else in the play. Continue reading

Jez Butterworth’s The River at the Royal Court: pre show thoughts and nerves

Tonight is the first preview of Jez Butterworth’s The River and we have tickets. No thanks to me as my attempts online were a complete and utter failure, but thanks to revstan who queued at the theatre (she wrote two lovely posts about the experience here and here – everything you wanted to know about the excitement of queuing and never dared to ask).

Very few productions deserve a pre performance post. Jez Butterworth’s The River is one of those productions. His next play after Jerusalem was always destined to be an event. But Royal Court left nothing to chance: the production (directed  by Ian Rickson, with a cast that includes Miranda Raison and Dominic West no less) plays at the Jerwood theatre upstairs. An 80 seater at the best of times, rumour has it that for this production it’s only 60 seats. Not much larger than someone’s living room. Most crucially tickets can only be purchased on the day of the performance. This decision, which penalises theatregoes who don’t live in London and regular Royal Court audiences, was, in my opinion, at best misguided, at worst cynical. What’s beyond doubt is the controversy it created. Along with the regular complains, discussion focused on the new practice of paid queuing. If Royal Court wanted to give everyone the same chance, you have to consider whether it achieved exactly the opposite.

But today these objections don’t matter. Royal Court will be buzzing, very little is known about the play and we are all in for a surprise (one way or another). And I talked about nerves. My nerves that is. It’s the dread and excitement revstan has been talking about. I used to get very nervous going to the theatre. I could envisage myself in the place of the actor when something goes wrong and my heart would pound. I learned to enjoy this, nerves, butterflies and all. Live performance. This is what’s all about.

Update 20/10/2012: you can find my review of the production here.

Tennessee Williams at the Old Vic and other theatre news

Melina Mercouri in Sweet Bird of Youth (1979)

In a series of irregular features, this is a roundup of theatre news and rumours that caught my eye this past week:

  • Word is Marianne Elliott will direct Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth for the Old Vic, no news on the cast yet. I have never seen the play but my enduring image of it is a black and white photo, Melina Mercouri in a 1979 greek production. The project should attract a first rate and exciting cast. (Update 11/10/2012: Baz Bamigboye of the Daily Mail confirmed the rumour today, with the information that Kim Cattrall will play the lead role).
  • My current theatre obsession is a play and theatre production I haven’t seen: Peter and the Starcatcher went from workshop to off Broadway production to Tony award winning Broadway hit, and indications are strong it will transfer to the West End next. Roger Rees (who developed and co-directed the play in New York) is in London for his one man show What You Will so maybe there will be news soon.
  • A few months back, the Royal Court announced, as part of its upcoming season, the new Jez Butterworth / Ian Rickson play The River, and given that Jerusalem was the last offering from this playwright / director team, the interest was huge. Excitement turned to irritation as it was also announced that no tickets could be purchased in advance (membership booking or otherwise) and all tickets would be purchased on the day. A few days ago, cast was announced for the play with Dominic West, Miranda Raison and Laura Donnelly taking the roles in this intimate three-hander. This production feels like the poisoned chalice to me, as it will be difficult to live up to expectations and the whole business with the tickets didn’t buy a lot of good will (among regular – and paying – theatregoers like myself, the critics obviously don’t care). But if I ever get tickets, I ‘ll tell you what I think of it.

Podcasts and Audio content relating to theatre – the Definitive List

(And by “definitive” I mean the ones I like).

I love audio content of any description. Audio content plus theatre combines two of my favourite things, and this is a quick rundown of theatre podcasts (or rather audio content relating to theatre) that I visit on a regular basis. The order is random, so make sure you go through the whole list as some of the gems are right at the end. Continue reading

Random thoughts on the Rehearsed Reading of Look Back In Anger

Look Back In Anger poster of the first production at the Royal Court in 1956

Part of the Playwrights’ Playwright season at the Duke of York’s theatre, at 2pm yesterday a mouth watering cast (Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Anna Maxwell Martin, Matt Ryan and Julian Wadham) performed a rehearsed reading of John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger. The word “seminal” was invented for that kind of play: when it was first performed 56 years ago, it changed british theatre, if not british society: not only did it introduce a new kind of writing that still dominates british theatre today, but also, quite possibly, saved the Royal Court from extinction. Most of the new writing of the last 55 years might not have happened if not for this play. The delightful irony of performing the reading at the set of Posh didn’t escape anyone.

Look Back in Anger is an indestructible play. The level of the audience’s emotional engagement right from the start is so high (even if that emotion can loathing) that no matter the production, it always feels like a wild ride. It’s amazing it’s been written more than half century ago: while the play is rooted in its time (and it’s interesting to contemplate how the characters were perceived then, and how we perceive them now), the writing is fresh and current. Continue reading

In Praise of Rehearsed Readings

I always wanted to do a blog post about rehearsed readings and with the new season of Playwrights’ Playwright at the Duke of York’s, this is the perfect opportunity.

Straight to the point, for me rehearsed readings are theatre at its purest: a group of very talented actors, little rehearsal, no time to overthink it, no real props or set to hide behind. Actors are relaxed and playful. There is very little at stake (no reviews or press) which means there is everything at stake: the moment that can’t be repeated or improved upon and it can only be shared by a bunch of people in that one evening. Continue reading

Review: Birthday at the Royal Court

Stephen Mangan and Lisa Dillon. Photo by Jay Brooks

Stories about motherhood and babies are not rare, but still it seems that lately I have seen 3 or 4 plays and films about new or expecting mothers. (And no, I didn’t see What To Expect When You Are Expecting). Most of them talk about mothers who can’t be away from their babies. The one that rang the most true was the new mother who was desperate for a night out. Either way, Birthday, a new play by Joe Penhall, directed by Roger Michell, came to fill a gap in those stories: what happens during the 24 hours around child birth. Even if this child birth is not the traditional kind.

To say much more would spoil it, all you need to know is that Ed (played by Stephen Mangan) and Lisa (played by Lisa Dillon) are at the hospital expecting their second child. Labour has been induced, nerves are frayed, the miracle of birth looks more like a horror film and no one else seems to understand how serious the situation is. Continue reading

Posh at the Duke of York’s theatre – Review

Posh, written by Laura Wade and directed by Lindsey Turner, was one of my theatre highlights in 2010. It tells the story of ten overprivileged young men spending one evening in the  private dining room of an Oxford pub, where they try to capture past glories of wild nights and map their future (which, they see, as the future of the country). Things don’t go according to plan. Or do they? Having seen the original production at the Royal Court twice, I have good news to report: the production, now transferred to the Duke of York’s, has not lost its spirit or its freshness. Continue reading