Monday, 30 March 2015

Theatre Review: Clarence Darrow

It’s much to my personal shame that I had never heard of Clarence Darrow before last Saturday night. Quite why there was a play written about him, a play starring Kevin Spacey no less, was entirely beyond me. Ignorance in this case turned out to be very much not bliss.

Directed by Thea Sharrock and with a cast of Kevin Spacey and absolutely no-one else, Clarence Darrow sees the titular American civil rights lawyer/giant/hero telling the story of his life and his most famous cases. A story which, frankly, should be much more widely known than it is. And not just by me.

Having never seen a one man show before I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I suppose, to the extent that I had expectations, it was that it would be a long monologue with an interval. But that’s not what it was. Clarence Darrow is very much a play, it just happens to be a play with only one actor.

And there are multiple characters in this play too, it just happens that all but one of them are played by empty chairs. This dodgy sounding technique - made infamous by the clusterfuck that was Clint-Eastwood-meets-Barack-Obama at the Republican convention the other year - is so effectively done throughout the play. Thanks to Kevin Spacey’s extraordinary performance (yes I'm getting to that, hold your horses) we know exactly what these chair people are saying because of the way he reacts to them. He makes them into real people - which is just genius when you stop and think about it - and, by allowing the audience to use their imagination to fill in the gaps in his exchanges with them, gives these sequences a surprising emotional power too.

The example that stands out most strongly in my memory is when Darrow’s marriage collapses and the empty chair becomes the devastated wife that he’s leaving. I could describe to you exactly the way his wife lifted her tear filled eyes, raw with heartbreak and confusion, to watch as her husband walked away. But what I'm describing there is what was going on in my head whilst I watched a man walking away from an empty chair. I cried my little heart out for that chair; testament to the power of this production and Spacey’s performance in particular. (I hope the chair is ok.)

Now, I've been very lucky so far this year to have seen some outstanding performances in the shows I’ve seen (Ralph Fiennes in Man and Superman, Mark Strong in A View from the Bridge) but Kevin Spacey in Clarence Darrow blows them all out of the water. I could spend hours elucidating exactly why this is - all the tiny details that make you feel like he’s telling his story just to you even if you’re sitting in the cheap seats, the heart rending passion with which he delivers Darrow’s soaring speeches, the sheer energy of a performance that seems to never stop moving - but I won’t because you’d get bored and I've got shit to do. All I will say is this: it’s the most breathtakingly brilliant performance I've ever seen, from any actor, in any medium. And to be honest I think that anyone who’s seen this show and doesn't say exactly the same is either lying or an idiot. Probably both.

It helps that Spacey is given such rich material to work with. David W Rintels’ script is fantastic - fast paced, witty, emotive, passionate, sad and outraged all at exactly the right moments. The script includes several passages of verbatim quotes from Darrow’s incredible courtroom rhetoric which give the productive a real moral and emotional punch. I have never cried in the theatre the way I cried watching this show and it was these beautifully crafted, pleadingly passionate verbatim passages that set me off every time. The closing speech from the famous Leopold and Loeb trial, which is also the closing of the play, almost killed me and I make no apologies for quoting the bit with which I am now obsessed in all its glory:

I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgement and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man. [Source] 

There’s more that I could say about this superlative busting show - I haven’t even touched on the great set, the clever use of lighting and sound, the effective (much more effective than I was expecting) in the round staging - but having read that quote I’m about to start crying again and need to go and have a lie down. Suffice it to say it’s a privilege to have seen it.

Playing at the Old Vic until 11th April, unsurprisingly Clarence Darrow is sold out. I believe there are a (presumably very limited number of) day tickets and returns available though. Sell whatever possessions/property/family members you need to to get one.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Theatre Review: The Broken Heart

When I did A Level English Literature about a billion years ago, one of the set texts I loved most was The Duchess of Malfi. 

Written by Jacobean dramatist John Webster, Malfi is a great, weird and generally slightly unhinged play featuring amongst other things an evil cardinal, a great malcontent (I always identify with those guys…) and someone dying by kissing a poisoned book. All the ingredients for a top night at the theatre in the 17th century. And the 21st, I would argue. 

The Broken Heart, playing in the period Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, is also a Jacobean revenge tragedy written by a dude called John. Sadly here the similarities with Malfi end. 

Image source.
This time it’s John Ford doing the writing, and said writing is clunky and slow. The plot is at best tangled and impossible to concisely describe, but I’ll have a go. Penthea and Orgilus are star crossed lovers in ancient Sparta, until Penthea’s brother Ithocles intervenes and marries her to the old and jealous Bassanes. Orgilus swears revenge on Ithocles and gets it by way of murdering him in novelty fashion (in a death chair) thus causing Calantha, soon to be Mrs Ithocles and heir to the Spartan throne, to die of the titular broken heart after condemning Orgilus to death (by assisted suicide, helped along by Bassanes who at this point is apparently the recipient of a personality transplant). Penthea meanwhile has starved herself to death. Clear? No, it’s really not.

Caroline Steinbeis’ production does admirably well in making this bramble thicket of a story easy to follow. It’s pacey without being rushed (although cutting ten minutes off act one would've been welcome) and looks beautiful, making clever use of a ‘Greek’ colour palette which sparkles and shimmers beneath the candle light. There are some decent performances too, especially from Sarah MacRae as a spirited Calantha and Brian Ferguson as an enjoyably passionate Orgilus. 

The production also has a very clear sense of what it wants to be. The problem is that it wants to be a Carry On film. Carry On Calantha perhaps.

Whilst focussing on the comedy in an archetypal Jacobean revenge tragedy is an interesting idea, the execution just doesn't work. It’s camp. So camp that even I find it too camp. And I love camp! It’s jarring, it doesn't add anything and it doesn't make sense. 

The camp problem is most evident in the portrayal of Bassanes. Played by the usually fantastic Owen Teale, who brings so much menace and nastiness to his role as Ser Alliser Thorne on Game of Thrones, he is a preening, prancing, slapstick horror, all flailing arms and arch glances through the fourth wall. For one of the big villains of the piece, at least the first act, it’s slightly baffling and lowers the stakes so far that he simply ceases to be of any dramatic interest. In fact I felt my shoulders slump every time he came on stage. Post-personality transplant, the reasons for which are never made clear, in act two he becomes more earnest and a much more empathetic character. It’s such a shame that having sat through his Julian-Clary-does-Jacobean act that I no longer cared.

It’s frustrating really, because I can see an alternate universe in which playing up the comedy would've worked. But it needed to be much more subtle and much more wry. 

Whilst the play was deeply mediocre, I totally fell for the intimacy and general gorgeousness of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse itself. A faithful recreation of a 17th century indoor theatre (as opposed to its outdoor cousin, The Globe), and famously lit only by candles, it’s a beautiful space that totally works as a modern performance venue. I can’t wait to go back and see something good there. 

Not very good photo of the SWP's painted ceiling.

Even worse photo of the SWP
The Broken Heart is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe until 18th April. There are tickets available for each of the remaining performances.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Theatre Review: Man and Superman

Until now, my entire knowledge of Bernard Shaw came from two sources: My Fair Lady and the obscure but brilliant Stephen Sondheim musical The Frogs

The latter includes a great song about Shaw which espouses his genius whilst wryly noting that he’s “a little short on brevity”. I think that sums up my opinion of the National Theatre’s triumphant revival of Shaw’s Man and Superman (running time: three and a half hours, cut down from an original five and a half) rather neatly. 

Man and Superman tells on one level a very simple story: woman (Ann Whitefield, played with aplomb by Indira Varma) wants man (Jack Tanner, a masterful Ralph Fiennes), man resists, woman persists, woman gets man. But this isn't a play about a story, it’s a play about ideas. Big ideas: the nature of humanity, masculinity, womanhood and class. It’s complicated - and I’d be lying if I said I followed it all completely - it’s long and it’s utterly brilliant.

Perhaps I'm a previously undiagnosed Shavian, because I absolutely loved the intricately crafted dialogue that fills this play and that I’d initially been very nervous of. It’s beautifully constructed, has a rhythm that’s almost musical (set some music behind this and you’d almost have an opera) and, most importantly, very very funny. Properly laugh out loud funny. Laugh until your face aches funny. Shaw just uses language fantastically well and it’s a joy to listen to, even in the occasional passages where you begin to wish he’d get to the fucking point. His construction of satire is as funny, if not funnier, than any that’s come since. There’s a universality and a timelessness to the dialogue, and the humour in particular, that gives it a feeling of relevance that many plays of a similar era no longer enjoy. 

It’s helped along by a sympathetic updating and excellent staging. The show is performed in understated modern dress and designed by Christopher Oram, who did fantastic work on the Michael Grandage West End season and does fantastic work here. Most affecting is the set he creates for the Don Juan in Hell dream sequence, where Jack Tanner becomes the infamous libertine and discusses the ideal nature of man (and woman) with the Devil. It’s a tricky scene - a dream sequence, in Hell, that deals with some very complicated, occasionally almost Nietzschean, ideas, with such scant links to the rest of the plot that many productions opt to omit it entirely - but, for my money, one of the most effective sequences in this production. 

Eschewing the traditional sets of the rest of the show entirely, Oram has created a wall of video panels which change with the dialogue. They glow blindingly white to herald our arrival in Hell, turn red when the Devil is giving his closing argument for his vision of the nature of humanity as the pursuit of pleasure and project ghostly human figures when Jack spells out his competing vision of humanity, evolution and the pursuit of the creation of the Superman. On a set stripped almost bare it’s an incredibly striking, memorable and ‘otherly’ image. Stripping it back completely also really helps focus the attention on the dialogue, which I certainly found the most difficult to follow and frustratingly verbose in the play.

The crowning glory of this production though is its performances. Indira Varma brings a modernity to the cunning, charming, sexy and generally kick ass Ann. Tim McMullan does double duty, bagging all the best lines in the process, as a love lorn Savoy-waiter-turned-Spanish-brigand and the Devil and steals scenes left, right and centre as both. Elliott Barnes-Worrell plays Jack’s street smart chauffeur with an appealing youthfulness that’s a perfect counter for his boss’ cynicism. 

And then there’s Ralph Fiennes. Barely off stage and rarely not speaking for the entire three hours plus runtime, there’s an energy to his performance that makes it mesmerising. As a feat of memory alone this performance would be worthy of mention - he has a mind boggling amount of lines and hits every one with perfect comic timing and a delivery that translates even his most complicated speeches into something understandable. His Jack Tanner, all masculinity and out-thrust crotch, treads the perfect balance between being likeable and a bit of a shit; his Don Juan is passionate and earnest without being boring. Either would be great on their own, to fit both of them into one show and maintain the energy level to do so successfully is remarkable. All of that said, his best moments come when he’s not speaking. Even from the back row of the circle his exasperated twitches and resigned shrugs were so effective. I'm not sure I've ever been as affected by a performance based on the physicality alone. Also, I've never really understood the appeal of the elder Fiennes before (Joseph was always more my bag) but I certainly do now. I would quite happily spend eternity and then some in Hell with this Don Juan, y’know.

So yeah; great play, great writing, great performances and a slamming hottie for a leading man. What more could you want?

Man and Superman plays at the Lyttleton at the National Theatre but is sold out except for day tickets and returns. It’s getting the NTLive treatment on May 14th.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Theatre Review: A View from the Bridge

A square grey wall, an ominous black door and a square white floor. Stark, odd, almost otherworldly. Tense. Something bad is going to happen - but what and when?

Such is the power of Ivo van Hove’s minimalist and utterly superb production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which tells the tale of Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) and the tragic consequences of his obsession with his teenage niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox). 

Tension is the lifeblood of this masterclass of a show, which updates Miller’s classic one act drama to the status of nerve-shredding thriller. It’s built up slowly and almost imperceptibly with each passing minute until the devastating denouement rips it apart in a prolonged moment of beautiful horror. 

Every detail is calculated to make the audience uncomfortably aware that the something bad, whatever it is, is on its way and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. The use of sound to create this atmosphere of dread is so clever that you don’t at first notice it’s happening. Throughout the play there’s a continuous soundtrack of almost Soviet sounding incidental music, which is anything but incidental. As the tension begins to build, the volume is varied and, at key moments, a single drum bangs out a heartbeat at varying tempos. As the show reaches its climax an achingly beautiful, soaring, hymn-like chorus rings out - reinforcing the inescapable truth that everything has been building to that moment and celebrating the breaking of the crushing tension.

By contrast, the dialogue in the show seems sparse and lengthy silences become almost a character in their own right. Silence in a theatre is tense almost by nature, except in really terrible shows (*cough* Stephen Ward *cough*), and the way the silences are held here is intense. In one scene, where the full cast are on stage having what can best be summarised as an awkward family chat, it was notable how the audience began to fill the silences themselves with increasingly nervous laughter. Anything to break that tension.

As well as the contrast between sound and silence, the production also exploits the contrasts in its bleak colour scheme. The black wall and white floor provide the only backdrop - there are no props - and the palette of costumes is earthy neutrals and muddy greens. There’s a naturalness to this colour scheme which sits very much at odds with the unsettling starkness of the black and white set. Again, this contrast between natural characters and unnatural set adds to the increasingly alarming sense of something awful about to happen. 

The final building block in this wall of tension is the small cast, who are without exception utterly captivating. Special mention must go to Mark Strong, who is extraordinary as Eddie - so sure of his conviction that he’s doing what’s best that you begin to believe him, even though every bone in your body is screaming that he’s wrong, and so still and measured that when he does lash out or lose his cool it’s genuinely shocking (another effective use of contrast). 

The moment where the tension is finally broken is one of the most powerful, striking moments of theatre I’ve ever seen. Instead of showing the climatic fight scene in a traditional way, van Hove has his cast - all of them, because everyone is culpable in this final, inevitable, tragedy - freeze in a rugby scrum-esque pose whilst a torrent of ‘blood’ falls on them from the ceiling. As the final music swells and the bare foot cast struggle to stay upright, the torrent keeps on pouring. And keeps on pouring. And keeps on pouring, until the bright white floor is red and the actors are dripping in blood. It’s beautiful and horrible simultaneously; the release of the tension is a relief but an awful one and the overall effect (on me at least) of yet another jarring contrast was a flood of tears. I don’t cry in the theatre very often, which is odd given I cry all the time otherwise, so this is a big deal! That final image will be seared on my brain for some time to come. 

A View from the Bridge is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 11th March. Ticket availability is limited so move fast if you want to see it. It’s getting the NT Live treatment on March 26th.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Theatre Review: Assassins

How many guns did you have pointed in your face last Friday evening? I reckon I had eight.

But that’s an occupational hazard when you sit in the front row in the teeny tiny Menier Chocolate Factory for a show called Assassins, I guess. It certainly makes you an attentive audience member.

Assassins, currently playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is a musical by Stephen Sondheim (who I love completely and unconditionally, just to get my starting bias out there nice and early) that tells the disparate and depressing stories of the men and women who've tried, successfully or otherwise, to assassinate the President of the United States. A cheery and obvious topic for a musical I'm sure you’ll agree. On the surface they have nothing in common - Squeaky Fromme tried to assassinate Gerald Ford to impress lover Charles Manson, Charles Guiteau assassinated James Garfield because he refused to make him Ambassador to France - but dig a little deeper and does that hold true? Sondheim and book author John Weidman say no, and this potentially difficult to love show set out their stall that the one thing they all have in common - with each other and with us - is that they want their ‘right to be happy’ to be fulfilled.

Carly Bawden, Catherine Tate and the company
Image source.
I say this show is difficult to love, but man did I love it. I loved it so much. So so much. So so so- well you get the picture. Assassins is without question the best thing I've seen in the theatre this year and the best non-Macbeth thing I've seen in ages. I loved it, if you didn't get that message.

Where to start on what’s right with it? Let’s go with the cast, which is so impressive it’s sort of not fair. Much like the people they’re playing, the cast are an odd mix of musical veterans (I last saw two of them in Spamalot, which was weird for my brain to process), comedy heavyweights from improv to sketch shows, established ‘serious’ actors and exciting up-and-comers. Every single one of them turns in a performance so good that it seems mean to highlight any of them. But I'm going to: Michael Xavier, who possesses one of the best voices I've ever heard, is a frighteningly suave and rational John Wilkes Booth; Jamie Parker wrings every ounce of sarcastic charm, and then something much darker, out of his Balladeer-turned-Lee Harvey Oswald, displaying a fantastic musicality along the way; and Andy Nyman is pitch perfect as an unnervingly upbeat Charles Guiteau (and his hanging scene is one of the best/worst moments of pure spectacle in a consistently spectacular show).

Onwards to the production itself which, frankly, is fucking terrifying. Set in the sort of abandoned fairground that nightmares are made of, complete with creepy disembodied clown head on the floor, the show exudes menace from every pore (if shows had pores, which they clearly don’t). The lighting is pale and harsh shot through with garish red and neons, which make the faded carnival colours seem even more threatening. The bare concrete floor - and the dynamics of the Menier space more generally - give off a sort of Slaughterhouse 5 vibe. It is hugely affecting and sets a very particular mood which is sustained for the whole (interval-less) show. Especially when you’re sitting on the front row, where you’re pretty much afraid to move or breathe. The overall effect is hypnotic: you can't not look at it.

The music itself is fantastic - a great example of Sondheim’s brand of pithy, dark social commentary combined with jaunty songs. Whilst not the most memorable of his insanely impressive back catalogue, they are all clever, complex and fantastically realised. Personal favourites include Everybody’s Got The Right, an old school Broadway riff on the American Dream which becomes something quite different in the mouths of these particular characters (and I've had stuck in my head all week) and, as an ex-school band member, I adored the appropriation of the ubiquitously patriotic (trans: really fucking annoying) marches of Sousa used in a distinctly unpatriotic way, a small piece of genius for my money and a small piece of personal revenge for all those early morning practices marching around the tennis courts playing Washington Post. But I digress.

The bad news about Assassins? For hopefully obvious reasons, the entire run is completely sold out. I don’t know if the Menier does returns or anything - this was my first visit, but certainly won’t be my last - but if so you should do whatever is necessary to get one. If not, pray for a transfer for this superlative work. Top, top marks to all involved.