Sunday, 13 November 2016

Theatre Review: Amadeus

Sometimes all it takes is the poster for a show for me to be able to think without a shadow of a doubt 'yes, that is for me'.

As wrong as it may be to judge a book by its cover, my theatrical gut is rarely wrong (let's not talk about The Entertainer). As soon as I saw the poster for the NT's new production of Amadeus I knew I was going to love it. And I was 100% correct to think that.

There were two things that immediately jumped out of me from the poster (come-programme cover) that inspired my certainty. The first, and the most obvious, was the play itself. As everyone and their dog knows at this point, Peter Shaffer's work of beauty tells the story of the intense rivalry of the darling of Viennese court music, Antonio Salieri, and the brash new kid on the block, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It's been an award winning play, an Oscar winning film and is by now such a well known story that even The Simpsons has spoofed it (Magical History Tour - Lisa and Bart perfectly cast as Salieri and Mozart respectively). But I'd never seen it, other than in Simpsons form, and had always wanted to.

I was not disappointed. Not even a little bit. I love this play so much. Shaffer's writing is utterly lush, especially the passages that Salieri has talking about the beauty of music which spoke to a bit of my personality that hasn't been spoken to since I gave up all involvement in performing music over a decade ago. But his writing is also funny and sparky, and his characterisations rich and enlightening. Again, it's Salieri who gets the best deal here and his progression into the bitter and devious man he has become by the end of act two, throwing off all of his tortured appeals to his better nature from earlier points in the play, is thrilling to watch. Especially, of course, if you're watching a great actor portray it.

Which brings me to the second thing on that poster which gave me certainty I would love this production: the presence, as Salieri, of Lucian Msamati. In the past eighteen months or so I've seen Msamati in three things and I'm now at the point where I feel comfortable saying that I LOVE THIS MAN A LOT. Like, I would pay money to watch him read the phone book out loud sort of love. He was great earlier this year in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, he was breath taking last year in the RSC's Othello (making history all over the place as their first black Iago) and he is a minor force of nature in Amadeus.

Salieri is a huge part; barely off stage for a scene, working as both narrator and main character and across two time periods. The energy with which Msamati attacks all of these challenges is as infectious as it is effective, and seemingly effortless. His emotional depth is stunning, his comic timing is spot on and those afore mentioned passages about the beauty of music? Look, I wasn't crying it was just raining on my face. It's a near faultless performance that I would gladly sit through again and again. If Msamati doesn't make an appearance in my rapidly approaching 2016 bets performances post I'll be amazed.

There is so much more to love in this production than what is on the poster though. And one of the biggest things on that list is the presence of a real life, live orchestra and legit opera singers in the cast. Seriously, whoever thought to bring in the excellent Southbank Sinfonia and use them as effectively another character in the play deserves some kind of award. It's a masterstroke. It works so well, and really hammers home the fact that music is just a great thing. The staging is interesting too, tapping into the trend for overt theatricality with its open backed set and exposed backstage area. Given the overt theatricality of this play and its themes, this staging works and doesn't feel forced (though the orchestra packing up and getting their coats on at the end was probably pushing it a bit but then perhaps they're all reliant on Southern Trains to get home so needed to make a quick getaway). The Olivier's revolve is also cleverly used to give the otherwise quite minimalist setting some depth, literally and metaphorically speaking. It's conversion into an orchestra pit was particularly good.

In case you've not noticed, I loved this production and really can't recommend it enough. It's ine of the best things I've seen this year and frankly I feel sorry for people who don't get to see it. Tickets are currently scarce, but another lot is due to go on sale soon. Take advantage or be an idiot.

Amadeus is in the Olivier Theatre at the NT until 2nd February, with further dates to be announced. It gets the NT Live treatment on 2nd Feb too. 

Theatre Review: The Red Barn

Of all the genres I've seen on stage, thriller is probably by far the rarest.

Had I, before the NT's David Hare-penned The Red Barn entered stage left, ever seen one before? I don't think so. Having seen The Red Barn, have I seen one now? Probably, but I'm not 100% sure.

Written by Hare based on the novel La Main by Georges Simenon (he of Maigret fame), The Red Barn tells the story of two couples who get caught in a blizzard. When one person fails to emerge from said blizzard, the remaining three lives become tragically entangled in a mess of emotion and bodily fluids. It does not end well.

It's an odd little play in some ways and, on reflection, the play is the weakest part of the production. Billed as a thriller, which genre it undeniably does slot into, it's also maddeningly predictable. Every plot development is heavily sign posted, occasionally in a fun, 'hey, remember the weird opening scene? It's about to become super relevant' sort of way but more often in a glaringly obvious 'THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT' sort of way. Maybe it's just me, but I like my thrillers at least 100% twistier than The Red Barn. I struggle to think of it as a thriller at all to be honest.

Ultimately, it's difficult for the play to sustain the tension that the rest of the production, particularly the staging, is working its socks off to build.

The staging is bloody magnificent though and pretty much worth the price of a ticket on its own. Undoubtedly the most televisual - not cinematic, televisual - production I've ever seen, director Robert Icke and designer Bunny Christie (man, I wish that was my name) deliver an homage to Hitchcock via early series Madmen that is just incredibly compelling. The production is driven by a series of black rectangular blocks that move around to frame each scene, giving the look of watching the action on a massive TV. When a scene needs to expand to show off a hitherto unseen piece of the jigsaw the blocks slide around to accommodate that too. Visually impressive and, I assume, technically daring the effect is both instantly striking and also very memorable.

The production also benefits from a really brave use of darkness and silence, a welcome counterpoint to the constantly evolving set and the reasonably high number of special effects used. The special effects are well used though, and necessary to the plot, particularly the occasional use of strobe lighting. Extensive sections of audio recording become a little bit less interesting for being slightly overused, but are still a clever way to fill the space between scenes.

If the staging is the star of The Red Barn, and it is, then second billing must go to the reliably excellent Mark Strong who is, reliably, excellent as Donald, the lead character and the only one with any real nuance or emotional depth. He drives the plot on exceptionally well and does manage to draw a sense of unpredictability and danger into proceedings. Donald is appropriately named in that he's an unpleasant, insecure and vaguely pathetic character objectively, but in Strong's hands becomes somehow likeable if not altogether sympathetic. The female leads, Elizabeth Debicki and, on the night we were in, understudy Sarah Oliver-Watts, are dependably strong and do the best they can with the material available to them but both of their character are very broadly drawn and pretty much stereotypes; the fragile/manipulative, younger, blonder Other Woman and the faintly unhinged, keeping-up-appearances, WASPy wife respectively.

I'm aware there's a lot of snark in this post but I still, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, would recommend The Red Barn. The design alone is worth your time and any chance to see Mark Strong doing his thing live is one that should be seized with both hands. And it seems plenty of people agree with me, because ticket availability is almost nonexistent. Book now or miss out.

The Red Barn is in the Lyttleton Theatre at the National Theatre until January 17th.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Theatre Review: iHo

Or, to give it it's full name, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, or iHo. Yikes. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the Hampstead Theatre's design and marketing office when that title was revealed. 

A play with a name this nuts is going to be one of two things: fatally pretentious or really, really smart. Thankfully iHo is the latter. But then it's written by Tony Kushner so really what do you expect? 

In some sense a more prosaic story than Kushner's most famous pieces, Angels in America (and, incidentally, putting this in your season a few months before the NT's star studded Angels opens is surely one of the smarter bits of theatrical marketing this year), iHo tells the story of the Marcantonio family reuniting as their father announces that he's going to kill himself. Emotional turmoil ensues.

What I liked best about iHo was unquestionably the writing. Kushner's Marcantonios are one of the most true to life families I've seen on stage, despite the extremity of both the situation of the play and the characters in it. He writes them messy, which sounds like a stupid thing to say but think about how you talk - and especially how you row - with your family and tell me it's neat. There are several scenes in the play when there are at least two different simultaneous conversations going on which, although occasionally difficult to follow, really gives the impression that this family are real and you've just somehow stumbled into their Brooklyn brownstone. 

The play also benefits from Kushner's usual ability to mix humour and pain perfectly, often in the same line never mind the same scene. There's plenty of anger thrown into the mix too, all different types of it. And, this being a Kushner, a healthy dollop of politics. Topically for the lefty idyll that is Hampstead, it takes as its political theme the trade off between principles and real life success and the potentially heartbreaking results whichever wins. Insert your own Labour Party joke here. 

Hampstead productions are always immaculately staged and this one is no exception. A single, relatively simple, three story brownstone set placed on a revolve so we see both inside and outside at various points and a judicious use of props allow the writing and the acting to shine. It's far less showy than the elaborate, moving sets I've seen at Hampstead before but no less effective for that. 

And it's completely right that the acting is given the chance to shine because it's ace. Technical term that. In a stellar but small ensemble it's difficult to pick favourites, but David Calder is great as suicidal patriarch Gus; completely plausible, emotionally rich and with a spot on New York accent that I loved listening to. Tamsin Greig is probably the standout for me though as Gus' favourite child (as she thinks) and the one who bares the brunt of his politically puritanical expectations. The final confrontation between father and daughter is the highlight of the play for me, beautifully emotional, raw, angry and completely believable. 

There's very little not to love in iHo. I rate it utterly and it's by far one of the most interesting things I've seen this year. I highly, highly recommend it. And, though it's completely unfair to think of it as an appetiser for something else as its own merits are so strong, if you are desperately waiting for the NT to finally release its Angels in America tickets this is definitely the thing to help you through. 

iHo plays at the Hampstead Theatre until 26th November. Tickets are understandably limited. Skates: on.