Thursday, 18 June 2015

Theatre Review: The Beaux' Stratagem

Sometimes it’s nice to go to the theatre and just laugh.

Not think about the various layers of meaning of a play, or decode directorial decisions or wonder about fancy staging. Just laugh. Simple pleasures are, very occasionally, where it’s at for me.

The Beaux’ Stratagem (I love that punctuation, is that weird?) by George Farquhar is a great play to see if you just want to sit in a comfy National Theatre chair and laugh like a hyena, which frankly is something that everyone should want to do.

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A restoration comedy staged in proper sumptuous period dress, the plot is relatively simple at first glance: two gentlemen - Archer and Aimwell, the titular Beaux - retreat to the country to carry out their Stratagem to marry money, having lost all of theirs in London, only to end up falling for the rich women they are looking to defraud. Throw in a dodgy innkeeper, a rogue highwayman, a priest, a French soldier and sundry other waifs and strays and the action starts to get a bit more complicated.

The comedy brings in its laughs in a variety of different ways: arch observations, silly wordplay (extending even to the character names - Archer and Aimwell the beaux on the hunt, Mr and Mrs Sullen the unhappily married couple etc), ridiculous situations and straight up slapstick. There is unquestionably a lot going on but it all gels together seamlessly and, more importantly, it’s all very, very funny. Joyously funny. Gloriously funny. (Yes, I liked it.)

Geoffrey Streetfeild is comedic gold as Archer, the more worldly and cynical of the beaux. In a razor sharp sprint of a performance he is never short of hilarious, especially when being coerced into situations that involve lengthy, energetic song and dance numbers. Streetfeild is great at both incidentally (and one day I’ll get the trifle song he sings out of my head, hopefully). The energy in his performance is phenomenal - not only does he have the bulk of the musical stuff, he also has the most lines and does the most running around - and he’s just magnetic to watch.

The rest of the cast are also excellent. Though arguably given less to work with, Samuel Barnett is great as Aimwell, the younger, soppier beaux, especially when given some physical stuff to do (his comedy sword fighting is top notch). Susannah Fielding is a fantastic foil for Archer as Mrs Sullen, witty and scheming but also the moral heart of the play. In smaller, but scene stealing parts Jamie Beamish, Pearce Quigley and Timothy Watson are glorious as a French priest with a suspiciously Irish accent, an exceptionally deadpan servant and a love lorn French count respectively. It’s a strong team.

Staged with a degree of ingenuity that sees one house set playing both a country pub and a country house through clever, rapid fire set dressing, the play is directed by Simon Godwin of Man and Superman fame. Although very different in style and tone - there were, regrettably I think, no big song and dance numbers in Man and Superman for a start - The Beaux’ Stratagem is another example of Godwin’s talent and deftness as a director of comedy. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite directors. (I'm sure that means a lot to him.)

As I've mentioned music several times in the last few hundred words, it would be wrong not to give a hat tip to the excellent band that The Beaux’ Stratagem has assembled. Sometimes on stage, sometimes off the band is a character in its own right - especially when accompanying Archer’s reluctant singing. And the period costumes are just gorgeous too, both in their rainbow colour palette and beautiful detailing.

I loved this play and this production a lot and you should go and see it if you like, y’know, things that are funny. Just beware the painfully catchy trifle song.

The Beaux’ Stratagem plays in the Olivier Theatre at the NT until 20th September.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman

There’s a lovely moment that happens sometimes at the theatre that lets you know that you've seen a really emotionally powerful show.

The moment happens in the silence between the end of act two and the start of applause, when everyone just sits absorbing what they've seen and the only sound you can hear is people quietly sobbing. I love that moment, and it happens so rarely that every time it does happen I love it even more.

There was definitely a serious moment at the end of the (for some genuinely unfathomable reason half empty) production of the RSC’s Death of a Salesman I saw the other night.

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Telling the story of hard-working New York salesman Willie Loman and his tragically unsuccessful quest to live his American Dream, this production has five star reviews coming out of its ears and it’s not difficult to see why: it’s fucking brilliant.

Adding to an almost embarrassingly long list of great performances I've seen so far this year, it’s the acting in Death of a Salesman that ensures it’s heartbreakingly memorable.

Antony Sher is devastatingly good as Willie. In an extraordinarily detailed performance - and with a top drawer New York accent - he gives us a fully rounded picture of a desperate, flawed man. His Willie is harsh and unfeeling; tender and jovial; confused and lonely all at the same time. He balances the energy and determination of Willie’s early years (the flashback scenes are so artfully done - making it clear when we are without holding up the plot) with the decline and delusion of the present day perfectly which makes the impact of the latter all the more upsetting to watch. He makes Willie’s story terrifyingly real and almost draining on the audience to watch which, in this instance, I mean as a complement. It’s really fantastic stuff.

I was almost more impressed, if that’s possible, with the supporting performances from Alex Hassell as Willie’s elder son Biff and Harriet Walter as his long suffering wife Linda. Walter in particular is incredible as the loyal but wounded wife defiantly standing by her man despite everything. Her final scenes, collapsing by Willie’s grave, are so powerful and so, so sad (the cause of the aforementioned moment). She provides the heart of the production, and whether that heart is beating loud and strong or breaking quietly she is elegant and compelling. Hassell is great too, managing to deal with the huge amount of work the flashback scenes place on him - at various points portraying the same character as a small boy, a teenager and an adult - incredibly convincingly and playing the angry, confused, scared adult Biff with just the right amount of tense energy. He feels like a dangerous character, in the same way a wounded animal is dangerous.

The staging of the production is simple, I suspect deceptively so, consisting of a two up two down house with New York brownstone high rises on either side. It’s also extremely effective in creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia. Everyone in the family is under each other’s feet, literally and emotionally, and the house itself is under the feet of the modern New York City that Willie complains feels so alien to him. When emotions run high the results of this close confinement is inevitable. There is a simple and almost always ominous score playing behind much of the action which adds to this claustrophobic mood. It’s altogether so effective, one of those productions you wish you could stop in some way because you know something too awful to contemplate is going to happen in the end.

This is one of my favourite shows I've seen this year and some of the strongest individual and ensemble acting I've ever seen. Everyone should see this production and given our experience of ticket sales everyone can - we were upgraded from the royal circle (cheap seats) to the ninth row of the stalls on a Friday night, utterly baffling for such an outstanding show (the last - and only other - time we had seats upgraded it was for everyone’s favourite omnishambles Stephen Ward). So yeah, get tickets and prepare to have your heart broken in a masterful fashion.

Death of a Salesman is on at the Noel Coward theatre until July 18th.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Theatre Review: Othello

Here’s a question: is Othello a play about race?

My answer, which I seem to recall formed a large part of my A Level English Lit coursework, is that it isn't. I don’t think Iago is genuinely racist, I think he’s just a shitty human being for whom racism (and suspicions of his wife’s infidelity and Cassio's promotion over him) are convenient excuses for his shitty behaviour. (I didn't phrase it quite like that in the coursework.) For me, the line that tells you the most about Iago and his motivations is when he says of killing Cassio “he hath a daily beauty in his life which makes me ugly”. I want to kill him because he’s a better person than me, in other words. See, shitty human being.

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The fact that the play is not, or at least need not be, about race is currently being reinforced in spectacular style in the RSC’s current production where both Othello and Iago are played by black actors, Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati respectively. Msamati is the first ever black actor to play Iago at the RSC, and one of only a handful in other productions around the world. The importance of the casting shouldn't be understated in a world where until as recently as 1990 Othello, one of the most famous non-white characters in theatre, was played by a white actor.

More importantly, though, he’s an amazing Iago in an amazing, clever production.

What was most interesting about the production for me is the way it dealt with the (lack of the) race issue. My expectation was that it would simply ignore it completely. What it did instead was use it to create a solidarity and kinship between Iago and Othello which made the former’s corruption of the latter seem a lot more plausible than it often does. Because Cassio is white, and a different age to Othello and Iago another factor which this production plays on extremely effectively, the sense of the other that is usually directed at Othello is often aimed at him (for example during the scene in which Iago gets him drunk when he attempts to engage in a rap battle with the rest of the - predominantly non-white - military unit) which is an interesting twist on the character dynamics that opens the play up in an entirely different way.

The other particularly interesting thing the production does is to destroy this idea that Othello is ‘the noble Moor’, an exceptional example of gallantry from an otherwise suspicious race. This is done through the obvious implicit statement that having a black Iago makes, but more strikingly through playing up the idea of Othello as the hardened military man. Most obviously this is done through a scene in which Othello oversees the waterboarding of an enemy soldier and then later when he ties Iago to a chair and tortures him with a drill and hammer into telling what he ‘knows’ about Desdemona's infidelity. It’s a fascinating take on the character and, again, makes the transformation of Othello seem more plausible and the play feel more modern.

No performance of Othello, however innovative, can be successful without exceptional performances though and it’s in this regard that the play is particularly thrilling.

Hugh Quarshie's Othello is by far the most complex and rounded iteration of the character I’ve seen, partly due to the decisions director Iqbal Khan takes with his characterisation as mentioned above but also because of a by turns jovial, sad, threatening and tragic performance that I don’t think puts a foot wrong. He captures the moments during Othello’s ‘conversion’ particularly well and his torture scenes are genuinely frightening, especially the waterboarding one as he casually wanders around the victim adjusting his glasses. His is a less sympathetic Othello, and all the better for it.

As is so often the way with this play, it’s Lucian Msamati's Iago who steals the show though. He is an outstanding Iago, the best I've seen, who hides an even-nastier-than-usual streak beneath an air of easy joviality. His soliloquies are delivered with such avuncular nonchalance that it’s quite difficult to either disagree with or dislike his logic and thought processes. For all that though, he is frightening in a way that other Iago's I've seen aren't. He doesn't seem to be as in control of what’s happening as Iago usually is, but the way his brain moves so quickly from one horrible act to the next makes him a more dastardly - and plausible - villain. And the very last scene, as he kneels, laughing, next to Othello, Desdemona and Emilia’s dead bodies as the lights fade, is one of the most memorable moments of theatre I've seen this year. It’s a masterful performance and worth the price of a ticket alone.

The play also looks beautiful, all fading Venetian arches and clever use of a water trough under the stage, and sounds fantastic too, with a live soundtrack of an eclectic mix of (I think) mostly African instruments and, when required, modern dance beats. And the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which I’d never been to before, is a fantastic space to which I hope to return frequently.

I don’t think I need to do an ‘overall...’ paragraph for this one as it is, I hope, obvious how much I loved this production. Go and see it. Go and see it now.

Othello plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until 28th August and is getting a cinema broadcast on 26th August.  

Friday, 5 June 2015

Theatre Review: Everyman

Sometimes you know instantly that you’re going to get on with a piece of theatre.

The moment a blue suit clad Chiwetel Ejiofor fell from the ceiling of the Olivier theatre in front of a full length video screen of neon lights to a soundtrack of pulsing dance music I decided that the National Theatre’s Everyman was for me.

Actually, the moment I decided I would get on with this production was probably some time before sitting down in the theatre. It was probably when it was announced that Carol Ann Duffy - superstar poet, if there is such a thing, who I fucking love - was doing the adaptation. There was no way that this archetypal traditional morality play was going to be given an uninteresting or unsympathetic update in Duffy’s hands, it was just a question of which direction she was going to take it.

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Everyman tells a very simple story: a man meets Death who tells him his time is up and that he must prepare himself to make a reckoning of his life in front of God. The man is young and healthy, completely unprepared to die and doesn’t have a great deal to say to God in his favour. Duffy’s update on this story is mostly to the ways that Everyman has wasted his life - booze, cocaine, fast cars, expensive holidays, gadgets, designer clothes, other stuff that a period audience wouldn’t necessarily recognise - but she also adds an element of environmental fable too. Everyman has been complicit in ruining the earth, and God is definitely not happy about that.

For me, the star of this production is Duffy’s writing. Written in verse, though not always obviously as is very much her style, the script is witty, punchy and accessible; funny, sad and beautiful (particularly when talking about the destruction of the environment). There’s also liberal use of some of the big swears which is also to be encouraged.

The writing is certainly helped along by some energetic, eye-catching staging, particularly in its use of video. One half of the stage is covered with a floor to ceiling video wall which is used largely in lieu of sets and is particularly effective when used to show the neon cityscape that Everyman falls to his death in front of. The music is great too - a very effective blend of modern dance and traditional music, from jazz to folk, with a quite literal, primal heartbeat pulsing through the action - as is the use of the Olivier’s famous revolve which is fully retracted to create a gaping chasm in the stage.

There’s no question that Chiwetel Ejiofor is a great Everyman either. The way his sunny carelessness becomes disbelief, grief, guilt, anger and, ultimately, a sad resignation is done with a lightness of touch and authenticity which makes him a plausible character rather than just an archetype. He wears a blue suit exceptionally well also. The stage is largely stolen from him, though, by Dermot Crowley as a joyfully deadpan Death and Kate Duchene as a wistful (AND FEMALE) God. Crowley in particular is a delight in every scene he is in. It’s a great part anyway, and he absolutely relishes it. The Irish accent helps to be fair.

As I think is abundantly clear, I really enjoyed this production and certainly recommend it. It really is a must for anyone who enjoys Carol Ann Duffy’s work or poetry more generally. And blue suits. Blue suits are well represented in this show.

Everyman is in the Olivier at the National Theatre until 30th August.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Theatre Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

I always think a good measure of how well a play is being received by its audience is how much coughing is going on. If a play is really good and people are gripped they forget their tickly throats. If it’s not and they’re bored then the auditorium is like a doctor’s waiting room.

There was a lot of coughing going on during Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Caryl Churchill’s civil war piece currently playing at the National Theatre. The play tells the story of the Levellers, the movement that sprang out of the disaffection of some former parliamentary soldiers in the English civil war who wanted to see genuine democracy - including an extension of the right to vote - replace the monarchy rather than Oliver Cromwell’s ‘protectorship’. It’s a huge, vital, exciting part of British history, and obviously very timely in an election year.

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It’s a shame, then, that the play is so boring.

The first act, only about an hour long, takes a good half hour of disjointed scene-setting to get going. The second act, of a similar length, starts with a strong first fifteen minutes and then dies into irrelevance. Part of the problem is that the play tries to do too much and so never really does anything well. This is exemplified by the inclusion of a subplot about the break off of the Ranters, an even more extreme faction related to the Levellers, which occupies most of act two. This bears almost no relation to act one, it’s almost like starting a new play with a different cast of characters and a new, jokey tone, and isn't well explained - I only understood who the characters were and why they were important because I’d read the programme notes. The disjointedness in both substance and tone is frustrating and sucks the life out of the play repeatedly. A standalone play about the Ranters would probably be really interesting, but in the context they’re presented in here they’re just a distraction.

None of the play’s problems are helped by its over-conceptualised staging. The action is set on a sort of stage-on-a-stage in the form of a giant dining table surrounded by rich upper class men. The point that the staging is trying to make is as such made with such clumsy un-subtlety that it, too, becomes a distraction. The main cast play multiple roles but these are often not accompanied by a noticeable change in appearance which becomes very confusing very quickly. The inclusion of a fifty-strong community cast (made up of local residents) is laudable, and I understand why this play in particular was chosen for them, but adds nothing. No one from the community cast is given a substantial role or lines, they mostly just form the group of rich men sitting mutely around the table. If anything, such a large cast just makes the piece feel flabby.

The one bit of this play that I did really enjoy was the sequence dramatising the Putney Debates. Using real speeches from the actual debates, which were held within the Parliamentary camp after the Civil War to decide what the new post-monarchy system of government might look like, the half hour sequence given over to this part of the story is genuinely exciting to watch. Simply staged with clear introductions to each of the characters, hearing the actual arguments made to form British democracy was thrilling and it seems to me that there’s such potential in expanding this into a full two hour play just focussing on the Putney Debates and its participants. I think this review would be quite different if that’s what Light Shining in Buckinghamshire had been.

Overall, then, an idea with great potential poorly done. Save your money, there are better things to see at the NT at the moment (clue: my review of Everyman will be up tomorrow).

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is in the Lyttleton at the National Theatre on select dates until June 22nd.