Review: King Lear (starring Simon Russell Beale) at the National Theatre, Olivier stage

Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Simon Russell Beale (Lear). Photo Mark Douet

Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan), Simon Russell Beale (Lear). Photo Mark Douet

There are three things you should know about Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear: it’s modern dress (more about it later), it achieves quite a few revelatory moments in the interpretation of the text (more about them later) and has a brilliant Lear in Simon Russell Beale. Maybe it’s true of King Lear what is true of Hamlet: it’s easier to have a brilliant central performance than having a brilliant production. If Sam Mendes’ King Lear falls short of true greatness, that’s more of an observation than criticism. The experience is rich and the rewards many, and any shortcomings become part of an intensely rich dialogue with the audience.

Simon Russell Beale’s Lear (short, with his head sunk in his body and quite reminiscent of Stalin in Collaborators) starts to show signs of deterioration early on. In the first scene, he has everyone under his thumb, unpleasant, mean, revengeful but his unstable mood picks through already. Did I miss the power of the king? I don’t think so. His bileful behaviour with Goneril in Act I, Scene IV is relentless and stomach-churning but underpinned with the abyss looking back. The moment he catches on – “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven. Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!” – feels like an explosion, it creates a vacuum around him. Continue reading

My top ten theatre productions of 2013

As You Like It. Pippan Nixon and Alex Waldmann. Photo Alastair Muir

As You Like It. Pippan Nixon and Alex Waldmann. Photo Alastair Muir

These are the 2013 productions that stuck in my dreams and didn’t want to shift. In strict alphabetical order, because selecting ten for the list was hard enough.

American Psycho, Almeida theatre: the energy and clarity of the production juxtaposed with Patrick Bateman’s nihilism made for an unforgettable experience. Hell in pastel colours and blood splatters. And eighties pop songs. Matt Smith plays the absence of a soul magnificently.

As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Company: Discovery of love and freedom played out with such openness in Maria Aberg’s production that in the end I wanted to cry with joy. Pippa Nixon was luminous (and as Ganymede she looked like a young K.D. Lang – that can only be a plus) and Alex Waldmann matched her soulful playfulness every step of the way. Continue reading

Review: Clare Lizzimore’s Mint at the Royal Court Downstairs

Laura Elphinstone as Stephanie and Sam Troughton as Alan. Photo Helen Murray

Laura Elphinstone as Stephanie and Sam Troughton as Alan. Photo Helen Murray

That was unexpected: could it be that the Royal Court weekly rep season, rough, quick and unpolished, produced one of the best acting performances of the year? When the time comes and I look back on 2013, I have little doubt Sam Troughton playing Alan in Clare Lizzimore’s Mint will be a definitive theatre moment of the year.

Mint tracks Alan, a 26 year old prisoner, through the next seven years of his life: prison visits, relocations, release. Family relationships, dreams, world events, personal milestones for loved ones. Alan is forced to watch from the sidelines, trapped physically and emotionally. He is desperate to connect, wrestle some control back and find his way. He struggles too hard to see that everyone is moving away. Continue reading

Review: Death Tax by Lucas Hnath, at the Royal Court Downstairs

death tax review - cast listLucas Hnath’s Death Tax, the second play at Royal Court weekly rep season, starts at the same box of a set The President Has Come to See You occupied, but the similarities end here. While “The President…” was a seat of the pants experience, certainly for the actors, Death Tax is a thoughtful, funny, exposing play about life close to death and life without death. The characters are defined by questions of mortality, money, the moment when their response to a moral and practical challenge changes their life, whether they realise it or not.

The story also makes an interesting leap into the future and imagines a world where immortality is merely a question of funds. Plays rarely step into science fiction territory and, while Death Tax is moderate in its futuristic ambitions, it is still an adventure with a genre theatre rarely touches. More science fiction plays please. Continue reading

Review: The President Has Come To See You, by Lasha Bugadze, at the Royal Court theatre

the president has come to see you - cast listNew artistic director, new bar. New adventures. Last night was my first time at the Royal Court since Vicky Featherstone took over and some of the changes were immediately apparent. Nice use of space at the bar, mismatched furniture, greater variety at the menu and food served till late. I heartily approve. I can see many more theatre friendships forged there.

New adventures, new rules. The President Has Come to See You, by georgian playwright Lasha Bugadze, is the first of six new plays performed by the same cast who only has a week to rehearse and perform each play. It’s fast, exciting, a little bit messy, and there is not enough time to feel the panic.

The play, with an exceptionally interesting premise, certainly lived up to all of the above. The story skids along the public and the private, the historical and the fictional: it’s August 2008, Georgia is at war with Russia, the BBC news readers sound as grave and as urgent as the circumstances demand. The georgian president has a nervous breakdown (who wouldn’t?), and takes to the streets. He meets people even more stressed than he is: reality tv contestants, young men forced to join the army, a dog owner who looks more unhinged than his savage dog. His chief of police bursts into tears. A (pregnant) man in a dress starts to look positively serene. Continue reading

Review: Bull by Mike Bartlett at Sheffield Studio (a Sheffield Theatres production)

From left: Adam James as Tony, Eleanor Matsuura as Isobel and Sam Troughton as Thomas. Photo Robert Day.

From left: Adam James as Tony, Eleanor Matsuura as Isobel and Sam Troughton as Thomas. Photo Robert Day.

Towards the end of Mike Bartlett’s Bull*, as performed at the Crucible Studio under the direction of Clare Lizzimore, I looked across the stage at members of the audience sitting opposite me: a woman was watching with her mouth open and a horrified expression. A man had his head slightly bowed, like he wished not to see but not able to stop himself. All with good reason: the last ten minutes of the play are as brutal and horrifying as anything I have seen on stage. And all that, without a drop of blood or physical violence.

But let’s get back to the beginning: as the back page of the text points out “Two jobs. Three candidates. This would be a really bad time to have a stain on your shirt”. Or maybe, this would be a bad time to imagine you have a stain on your shirt. Tony, Isobel and Thomas are waiting for a meeting with their boss. One of them will get fired. No decisions made yet but one of them doesn’t stand a chance. There is a horrifying inevitability to the proceedings.

Mike Bartlett’s language is disturbingly familiar. For anyone steeped in office politics, it rings true. Small mind games easily escalate. The text is also loaded with cultural values: efficiency, presentation, class, culling, Darwinian theories. What happens on stage is the concentrated version of every day office life. In small increments, it feels stressful. In this snapshot, it feels unbearable. And the responsibility lies with everyone. Continue reading

Review: Three Sisters at the Young Vic

Gala Gordon as Irina, Mariah Gale as Olga & Vanessa Kirby as Masha. Photo Simon Annand

A talented cast, a classic play, a theatre that regularly produces thrilling work (see A Doll’s House only a few weeks ago), where did all go wrong? You might have guessed that this production won’t make it to my top ten of the year, but a word of warning, my negative view of the production is considerably stronger than a mild dislike.

Short disclaimer: I have seen a few plays by Anton Chekhov, but I haven’t seen Three Sisters before. I don’t dislike unconventional interpretations of classic plays, it’s up to every individual production to won me over. But Three Sisters at the Young Vic, adapted and directed by Benedict Andrews, is so far off the mark that at times I felt personally insulted it was wasting my time (and at three hours running time, that’s a lot of time to waste).

The adaptation sets the play in modern times, the actors wear modern, if largely old fashioned, clothes and words like television and hair transplant are used. But the setting is neither naturalistic nor poetic, and that world never comes alive. It’s a vague place for people who probably don’t exist whose suffering is not real. As a result, their conflicts seem small minded and inconsequential. The modern words make the text sound banal, which in turn makes Chekhov’s big ideas sound nonsensical. Continue reading