Archive for the Theatre Category

The Recruiting Officer

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on March 6, 2012 by alexlarman

Josie Rourke, the new artistic director of the Donmar, has some impressively big shoes to fill. Not only does she come after the near-legendary Sam Mendes (whose assistant director she was), but her immediate predecessor was Michael Grandage, whose regime of alternating new, experimental work with big star-driven revivals has been seen as a 10-year job application for the role of artistic director at the National when the great Nick Hytner retires. (Sidenote – aren’t we blessed to have so many really excellent directors working in the theatre at the moment?) However, her first production, of George Farquhar’s late Restoration comedy, is as assured and enjoyable as anything under the previous companies.

Farquhar’s play was written in 1706, taking it comfortably out of the usual sphere of such drama as The Country Wife or The Man Of Mode. It’s not as biting or bawdy as those plays, leaving the traditional urban setting of town for Shrewsbury, where the recruiters, led by the dashing Captain Plume (Tobias Menzies) and the vaguely sinister Sgt Kite (Mackenzie Crook) have come to hunt for gullible young men to fight. Plume is also in search of his would-be lover Silvia (Nancy Carroll), who has taken to cross-dressing for entirely spurious plot purposes, and all are confused by the foppish Captain Brazen (Mark Gatiss), who makes twirlery, kissing and ‘m’dear!’-ing his arts.

Apparently this is the first time that the Donmar has staged a Restoration comedy, but it shouldn’t be the last. It’s not an especially rigorous or deep reading of the text, with most of the laughs coming from the near-pantomime exuberance with which an excellent cast (including Rachael Stirling giving an absurdly camp performance as an affected lady of ‘ears’) give the material. Some late attempts to graft on a vaguely moving finale don’t really sit easily with everything that’s gone before, but the glorious performances (especially from Menzies and Carroll) are a pleasure to watch throughout. If you can get tickets, you ought. M’dear.

Noises Off

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on December 17, 2011 by alexlarman

Michael Frayn’s 1982 play is rightly regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever written. Dealing with the attempts of a failing theatrical troupe to present a hoary old farce, ‘Nothing On’, under the tutelage of a past-it director, it combines verbal wit with a quite astonishing array of dramatic devices that illuminate the failure of the cast and crew to keep the show going. Frayn’s particular genius is to have three separate ‘Act Ones’, the first being a disastrous run-through at a dress rehearsal, the second being the action of the play observed from backstage, and the third being the incompetent presentation of it towards the end of its run.

If this sounds at all pretentious, then rest assured it isn’t in the staging. Lindsay Posner’s new production at the Old Vic provides comic bliss from start to finish, thanks to an incredibly well-drilled and very game cast, all of whom relish the opportunity to demonstrate split-second timing and remarkable comic poise. It is slightly invidious to single out particular actors from the uniformly strong company, but Celia Imrie’s grand dame thespian playing a comic housekeeper, Robert Glenister’s philandering director Lloyd Dallas, Karl Johnson’s elderly drunk and Jamie Glover’s petulant leading man are all particularly hilarious.

And, oh yes, it’s funny. Along with One Man, Two Guvnors, it’s the most uproariously hilarious night that I’ve had at the theatre this year. I’d seen it before about a decade ago with a starry cast including Lynn Redgrave and Stephen Mangan, but I don’t remember that production reducing me to the helpless paroxysm of mirth that this one did. By the end, the simplest of objects – a plate of sardines, a bag, a telephone receiver – have become so freighted with comic significance that their very appearance sends a roar of appreciative laughter through the audience.

Saying anything more detailed about the play is not only unfair, but verges on the incomprehensible for the uninitiated. All I can say is that this is a guaranteed hit, and yet another splendid addition to the run of excellent plays at the Old Vic. For this, Mr Spacey, many thanks.

The Merchant Of Venice

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , , on July 15, 2011 by alexlarman

As some old dowager quipped on the way to the interval, ‘It’s less Merchant of Venice than Merchant of Vegas.’ Yes, there are remarkably few adaptations of Shakespeare that begin with a bequiffed Elvis impersonator singing a (remarkably good) version of Viva Las Vegas, complete with on-stage band, but there are even fewer that seek to translate Shakespeare’s difficult, still-controversial meditation on anti-Semitism, unrequited love and avarice into a showboating, no-holds-barred extravaganza. Still, doing the apparently unthinkable is director Rupert Goold’s stock in trade. When it fails, as with a dismal King Lear starring an ailing Pete Postlethwaite in 2009, the results are embarrassingly poor. But, when it succeeds  – as in his breathtaking stagings of The Tempest, Macbeth and Enron – he’s probably the most exciting director in British theatre today.

The appeal for Goold would seem to be the connections between the unfettered avarice that Vegas is synonymous with and the underlying sense in Merchant of Venice that everyone has a price. Thus Portia (a convincingly jittery Susannah Fielding) is compelled to take part in an X-Factor-esque live show called Destiny, where contestants choose between three boxes and hope to win a wife by so doing. Likewise, Antonio (a quietly compelling Scott Handy) finds himself on the receiving end of Mafiosi-esque rough justice when Shylock demands the execution of his bond, dressed in the orange jumpsuit of a Guantanamo detainee and apparently faced with being brutally murdered without any recourse to the law.

It’s an endlessly febrile, challenging but immediately accessible and enjoyable reading of the play. In the midst of the showboating and extravagance, Patrick Stewart offers an intriguing performance as Shylock. Initially seen vainly potting golf balls in his office (as other critics have suggested, presumably he’s been denied entry to the country clubs on the grounds of his Jewishness), he’s equally determined to seek revenge for his daughter’s flight into the arms of a Christian as he is merely to recover his apparently lost wealth. Stewart, rapidly becoming the greatest older Shakespearean actor working in Britain today, offers a portrayal of Shylock devoid of sentimentality that’s never moving, exactly, but is certainly an uncompromising account of vengeful malice in a society where he’s hated in the most mundane and casual of ways.

Yet everything about this production is crystal clear, fresh and innovative. When it’s revealed that Lancelot Gobbo is the Elvis impersonator, it not only makes one of Shakespeare’s most annoying clowns a more intriguing character, but helps to illuminate his frustrated desire to be a more glamorous and successful figure than he actually is. And Portia here isn’t the conniving and brilliant woman of conventional presentations, but someone who has a delicacy and fear to her that makes her great legal coup de theatre less a moment of brilliance and more the luckiest of lucky breaks.

It’s a true pleasure to watch a production as skilful and nuanced as this, and it’s a full credit to the RSC that this, one of the premiere productions in their highly impressive new RST in Stratford-upon-Avon, sets the bar extremely high for the various other stagings that are going to follow over the next few years. When Shylock is asked, mockingly, ‘Are you contented?’, his answer might be one freighted with bitterness and cynicism, but the audience’s response is likely to be an altogether more sincere ‘yes!’

Until 4th October. RST, Stratford-upon-Avon

One Man, Two Guvnors

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on July 2, 2011 by alexlarman

Whenever a sold-out play is garlanded with the sort of critical superlatives that lead to lengthy queues forming at the box office come returns time, there’s always the worry that it’s going to be a case of hype over delivery. In the case of Nicholas Hytner’s new staging of Richard Bean’s loose adaption of Goldoni’s One Servant, Two Masters, there is no such cause for concern. This blissfully, at times hysterically, funny evening at the theatre rehabilitates James Corden from the obnoxious self-parody that he seemed mired in, offers a clutch of some of the best supporting performances anywhere on stage in ages, and shows (after the similarly giddy London Assurance) that the Hytner/Bean team-up produces some of the best comedy to be had anywhere on the London stage.

Bean relocates Goldoni’s original to 1963 Brighton, which leads to on-stage skiffle, an amusing evocation of the criminal underworlds of there and London, and a similarly convoluted plot. It boils down to Francis (Corden), a cheerful, limited and permanently hungry sort who finds himself working simultaneously for two employers, a young woman disguised as her dead twin brother and a public-school Hooray Henry who killed her brother but is also madly in love with the aforementioned young woman. Throw in an aspiring actor called Alan (because his first name, Orlando, was already taken by another Equity member), an 87 year old waiter, a Latin-spouting solicitor and a proto-feminist who eagerly awaits the first female PM ‘because she’ll be gentle, and kind, and humane’, and the scene is set for an evening’s hilarity.

What’s so endearing about this is the warmth and looseness to proceedings. There is a great deal of ad-libbing and improv, mostly from Corden, who shows after all that he’s a natural comedian. A typical example went something like this the night I went:

CORDEN: I’m so starving, I could eat any sort of sandwich. Meat, fish, even a nice bit of cheese…

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ve got a sandwich. You’re perfectly welcome to it.

CORDEN: Well, that had to happen one night. (Pauses for laughter). What flavour is it?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hummus.

CORDEN: (Disbelievingly) Hummus?!

Followed by merry gales of generous hilarity. It’s not all entirely like this – the great scene at the end of Act 1, in which Francis serves two meals simultaneously to both his guvnors, aided and abetted by the ancient waiter, ends on a note that’s both brilliantly unexpected and apparently rather cruel – but what strikes one most about this show is the openness of spirit that it displays. Oliver Chris’ near-genius Stanley Stubbers, the Wodehousian silly-ass who lusts after his disguised lover, gets most of the wittiest and funniest lines, at times coming on like an updated cousin of Hugh Laurie’s George in Blackadder. But there isn’t a weak link in the entire cast, even down to Lloyd Boateng as an ex-con chef who thinks back, wistfully, to his glory days at Parkhurst nick.

It’s very much sold out, although a West End transfer is planned for the autumn. (Heaven knows whether this will involve the likes of Corden and Chris.) There’s an NT live screening in September, but I don’t think that seeing this via a cinema screen will convey the full burlesque hilarity. Instead, I recommend queuing for returns and hoping that your luck’s in. The evening is more than worth it.

The Cherry Orchard

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on June 7, 2011 by alexlarman

Photography (c) Catherine Ashmore

‘Straw-hatted melancholy’. Is there a more dismissive way of referring to one of the greatest playwrights of the past 150 years, namely Anton Chekhov? Well, yes and no. Chekhov’s most successful plays – Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – all revolve around minutely detailed issues of wealth, class and society in late 19th century Russia, a country on the brink of explosion. Not, of course, that Chekhov ever lived to see the rise of Lenin and Stalin, dying as he did in 1904. The description cited above comes from the sense that his middleclass characters might mildly carp about their lack of money or success, but are still living in beautiful houses and have enough funds for trips and vodka. The great productions are those that show the aching despair underneath. Perhaps because of this dichotomy, Chekhov’s major works are often revived, and in fact the National’s new production of The Cherry Orchard follows on the heels of a very successful and enjoyable Sam Mendes staging of a new version of the play by Tom Stoppard in 2009 at the Old Vic. So how does it compare?

In the programme, the director Howard Davies makes a joke (at least I assume it’s a joke) about ‘if anyone asks for a linen suit or a parasol in this play they have to pay a fine or buy a round of drinks’. This feeling of wanting to get away from the usual Chekhovian clichés permeates his production, which has a robust, colloquial translation from Andrew Upton. Purists may well carp at some of the liberties taken – this is probably the first time that a Chekhov character’s been described as a ‘bozo’ or when someone says ‘I’ve told you a thousand bloody, frigging times’ – but the critical outrage that greeted the new version (with the Daily Telegraph’s critic pronouncing that it should be ‘thrown into the Thames’) seems hyperbolic. For better or for worse, this is straight down the line Chekhov, presented in classical style at the Olivier Theatre, and sufficiently accessible to be showcased in the NT Live season, where it will screen to cinemas across the country.

The storyline is, as ever with Chekhov, less about plot than the manner in which characters interact. Ranyevskaya (Zoe Wanamaker) is a feckless landowner facing bankruptcy, much to the despair of her daughters Anya (Charity Wakefield) and Varya (Claudie Blakley). The wealthy merchant Lopakhin (Conleth Hill), who is half-fond and half-frustrated by his neighbours, tries to arrange the sale of the cherry orchard to allow for its conversion to holiday homes when the railway line arrives, but Ranyevskaya will have none of it. Meanwhile, Lopakhin and Varya seem on the verge of forming an attachment, and ‘the eternal student’ Trofimov (Mark Bonnar) is stuck with a lot of terribly dull speechifying in which he spells out that the world is on the brink of change.

I didn’t enjoy this production as much as Mendes’ Bridge Project staging, but that’s no reflection on the calibre of this one. Hill, who’s been superb in Davies’ Russian plays before (including last year’s stunning Bulgakov adaptation The White Guard) is a fine combination of pomposity and warmth as the self-made man Lopakhin, Blakley is very moving as the plain, adopted daughter who longs for love but has no idea how to express it, and Kenneth Cranham is suitably doddery as the ancient servant, Firs. There’s also a fine comic performance from James Laurenson as Gaev, the clueless and deluded brother. In fact, the only weak link is Wanamaker, whose performance seems too telegraphed and obvious in its oscillations between gay abandon and poignancy, meaning that the eventual emotional charge seems somewhat muted.

Nonetheless, this is an intelligent, heartfelt production of a great play, and well worth going down to the National to catch, or of course watching on your local cinema come June 30th.

The Damnation Of Faust

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , on May 10, 2011 by alexlarman

As we all stagger out, heads throbbing and hearts pounding, from the final instalment of the Harry Potter series this summer, a multi-billion dollar behemoth that has offered virtually nothing other than polished Cliff’s notes to an overrated series of children’s books, the question will resonate with many: why didn’t Terry Gilliam direct them? He was JK Rowling’s first choice, and throughout his career has excelled in creating fantastical environments imbued with a sense of wonder and danger, from the neo-Orwellian phantasmagorias of Brazil to Hunter S Thompson’s Las Vegas.

The answer is a simple one. Gilliam, one of the few true visionaries still working in English language cinema, is seen by studios as ‘unreliable’ and ‘not box office’. His career has been affected by appalling incidences of bad luck, ranging from Heath Ledger’s death while filming the (interesting but flawed) Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus to his having to abandon his long-cherished Don Quixote project due to a near-Biblical run of unfortunate occurrences that included the illness of one of its stars, flash floods and the intervention of military jets. His past few films have disappointed, both commercially and critically.

So, what next? While some would retire to their chateaux and lick their wounds, Gilliam, a remarkably energetic 70-year old, has continued to innovate, directing short films, a well-received webcast for the Arcade Fire from Madison Square Garden and now accepting the ENO’s offer to direct Berlioz’ rarely staged The Damnation Of Faust. Perhaps surprisingly, he hasn’t ever directed an opera before, although he came extremely close to staging Andrea Chenier at La Scala in 2008. (That old bugbear, ‘scheduling conflicts’, played an unfortunate part.) But it would seem fitting to combine his crazed visual genius with the ENO’s latest attempts at hiring high-profile directors from outside the world of opera to breathe life into often unusual and challenging projects. Sometimes, as with Simon McBurney’s A Dog’s Heart, the result is a resounding success. At others, as with Mike Figgis’ recent Lucrezia Borgia, it’s a more disappointing blend of two incompatible styles.

What helps Gilliam’s production of The Damnation Of Faust is the piece’s comparatively non-canonical nature. Of course everyone knows its most famous part, the Hungarian March, but it’s seldom staged as an opera due to its lengthy instrumental sections and comparative absence of sustained narrative. Gilliam, a man never to shy away from a challenge, takes the central dynamic of Faust falling in love with Marguerite and being tempted by the devilish Mephistopheles, and moves it from its traditional 19th century setting to a time-hopping period between the fin-de-siecle of Romanticism to the altogether more chilling vision of Nazi Europe. The results are sometimes funny, occasionally horrific and mainly viscerally gripping. Of course, Nazis on the stage bring about the unfortunate memories of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, but Gilliam manages to shy away from the absurdity and unintentional humour that a well-turned swastika can still engender in the wrong hands.

The production (designed by Hildegard Bechtler, who was also responsible for the ENO’s Peter Grimes) first suggests, stunningly, the mountains and grand vistas of Caspar David Friedrich, but gradually moves into darker and more disturbing territory, with fascist slogans daubed on grim, utilitarian buildings that cannot but help remind viewers of Brazil’s claustrophobic dystopias. The performances and singing are all very strong, especially from Christopher Purves as a suave, shaven-headed Mephistopheles who doubles up as a devilish MC, and from a shock-headed ginger Peter Hoare as the bewildered, outwitted Faust.

I felt occasionally surprised that, despite the visual opulence and intelligent use of video, there are comparatively few moments where Gilliam goes flat-out for broke visually. If you’re expecting Monty Python-esque flying eyeballs and enormous expanding cities, forget it. What he does do, in harness with Edward Gardiner’s predictably excellent conducting, is to treat Berlioz’ curious hybrid with a respect and seriousness that it seldom has received in the past, and manages to make some apposite points about the human tendency to look the other way in times of suffering as well.

So, Hollywood. Gilliam has proved that he can handle a large-scale production in an unorthodox environment, and that he can do so with taste, wit, imagination and sensitivity. Any studio executives who brave their self-imposed cultural apartheid and venture out to the Colisseum during the production’s run might be pleasantly surprised. Let’s hope that some paws are put into chequebooks and that Gilliam is allowed a final crack at directing the Don Quixote story. Heaven only knows, he’s sold his soul to enough Faustian pacts to deserve it.

Cause Celebre

Posted in Theatre with tags , , , , on April 1, 2011 by alexlarman

 

The Terence Rattigan re-evaluation continues apace. In this, his centenary year, there have already been revivals of The Deep Blue Sea in Sheffield and Flare Path in the West End, with Chichester boasting new productions of The Browning Version and The Deep Blue Sea (a perennial favourite) later in the year. Thea Sharrock, who directed last year’s revelatory revival of After The Dance, has now returned with a new staging at the Old Vic of Rattigan’s last play, Cause Celebre, written in 1977. Some might ask ‘Why this surge of interest?’ It isn’t just because of fortuitous timing, but more because Rattigan’s ‘well made plays’, sneered at and forgotten in the rush to laud Angry Young Men and the theatre of the absurd, now seem like far more compelling theatrical experiences, offering incisive characterisation, sparkling repartee and a significant emotional punch.

It would be untrue to say that Cause Celebre is Rattigan’s finest work, though even mid-standard Rattigan towers above much 20th century drama. Written for radio, and adapted for the stage while he was dying of cancer, its use of short scenes, flashbacks and cross-cutting between characters all smack of television and film; fittingly, given that much of his career in the last two decades of his life saw him concentrate on these media. It’s based around the infamous 1936 trial of Alma Rattenbury who, along with her 17 year old lover George Wood, was accused of murdering her elderly husband Francis ‘Rats’ Rattenbury. As ever with British society, it was her sex life that was on trial as much as her criminal acts, and Rattigan makes this explicit with a secondary plot revolving around the morally priggish jury forewoman Edith Templeton (a stern Niamh Cusack) whose cold adherence to conventional morality results in the destruction of her family.

The play’s appeal lies in Rattigan’s ever-splendid skills of characterisation and dialogue. The court case, which occupies most of the play’s second half, is beautifully depicted, thanks in this production to Nicholas Jones’ superb performance as Alma’s cunning defence lawyer O’Connor, forever producing rhetorical sallies and the legal equivalents of rabbits out of hats. It’s directly comparable to the great extended scene at the first half of The Winslow Boy, as England’s most famous lawyer, Sir Robert Morton, takes the titular boy’s proclamation of innocence apart piece by piece, before reversing the entire scene on its head.

Sharrock is also enormously aided by a charismatic central performance from Anne Marie-Duff as Alma. Arguably Duff is too complex and vital an actress for the comparatively straightforward role as written, but she brings enormous poignancy and compassion to a character who might well have been schematic in the extreme on the page. Rattigan’s conception of Alma is someone who might be morally lacking by the strictures of the time, but has an innate life force that stands in stark contrast to the prigs and the bullies who surround her.  For that, it’s worth seeing a variable but often fascinating play, written by a fading master.