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Antigone

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The National Theatre’s Antigone brings this ancient tragedy forth into a modern day setting. It is quite astounding how the ancient moral dilemmas are still very much applicable to today’s tumultuous society.

The tale is based upon social values, power, and mortality.  Antigone, the eponymous heroine, longs to follow her heart as well as her religious beliefs by giving the last burial rites to her dead brother Polynices, Yet her uncle, the newly crowned King Creon has decreed that the rebel must be denied these rites and be left unburied. The King is blinded by his sole focus on the power of the state and loses sight of all reason. The chorus arises from Creon’s support staff of office workers, guards, and mail room staff. 

This is the young director Polly Findlay’s first show in the cavernous Olivier Theatre. She and designer Soutra Gilmore have placed inside a pentagon-like office with armed security, glass walls, and desks made for paper shuffling. The rotating set is brilliant and once again provides another design triumph for the National. 

Christopher Eccleston’s performance as Creon is enchanting. You know the car crash is coming, but he so completely embodies the role, that the audience cant help but watch in awe and agony. His character is driven by both a personal certainty and a need for power that together create a poisonous mix. His continuous missteps – first with his niece Antigone (Jodie Whittaker) then with his son Heaemon, and finally with the soothsayer Tiresias (Jamie Ballard) – his pride continues to lead Creon right to the catastrophic fall.  Yet he is obstinately blind to the consequences. Ballard’s tortured performance as the scarred prophet who summons the furies is superb.Whittaker physicalises her torment and the accelerated descent from rebellion to insanity. 

This is a simple, straightforward, and faithful staging of Sophocles’s work. Findlay has successfully set this ancient story in modern times. It is a powerful piece that resonates. It is full of energy and the messages, thanks to the outstanding performances and high-paced staging, ring true. I left breathless. 

 Antigone runs at The National Theatre through the 21st of July 2012.

13

Mike Bartlett is a promising new playwright. This is his second work to be produced at the National Theatre. The first being Earthquakes in London, and he is only 31 years of age. Impressive. The world premiere of any production is always exciting – there is no precedence other than reputations. It feels like a raw canvas upon which a myriad of projections may or may not appear.

At the beginning we do indeed see a myriad of images, of emotions, of situations blur across the stage.  This play comes out strong and sleek.  An entire city awakes after a night of a shared nightmare – the insinuations fly like shards of glass.  A bad dream, a society gripped by immorality and fear is portrayed through an expertly staged opening.  Scene changes are rendered seamless by advanced stage designs that turn in time with the story. These dozens of individual storylines are blended by the large, imposing set.  Talented designer Tom Scutt has designed a machine-like cube which rotates opens splits and can appear both solid and opaque due to the perforated material.  This really is the star of the show.

The story line begins by unifying a large, diverse cast of characters via a shared mutual dream. A cast full of recognisable thespians is promising.  The prime minister, the protestors, a seedy lawyer, and a mixed race family are all disrupted by this terrifying dream – perhaps a reflection of the current state of society, perhaps a shared subconscious or maybe even underlying fear. And here the story begins to falter – trying to compress too many views and subjects simultaneously.

Where the first half of the piece leaves us in jumbled anticipation as to how all of these intricately diverse characters and storylines will conglomerate into a breathing whole, the second half of the play cuts and discards so much of what it has been painstakingly created. Recurrent dream sequences disappear completely to be replaced with an almost comedic dance routine. Characters
suddenly become side-lined, and arguments, which should peak in, merely plateau or worse become hollow. This jumbled plot creates a sense of bombardment – similar to that which our media obsessed world creates on a daily basis. Twitter, facebook, news updates, cultural highlights, reading both right and left leaning papers, that overflow of information and then – suddenly instead of finding enlightenment, one simply feels overwhelmed and undereducated.  That is the sense this work conclusively portrays. The noticeable lack of focus and overarching plot leave the audience feeling empty rather than intellectually fulfilled.

In tackling politics, society, religion, and philosophy, 13 raises a number of thought provoking questions. However it fails to do this in any unique or conclusive manner. In the diverse cast of characters, there are a few weak performances, notably Kirsty Bushell and Genevieve O’Reilly who, despite having seen her in three diverse productions, always seems to play the same character. However this was the first public performance so I hope this improves.

In attempting to tackle so much, you clearly feel the playwright is overwhelmed after nearly two hours and suddenly thinks – oh no, I have to wrap all of this up in the last hour and does so in a hurry to the detriment of the work itself. In the final tableau, the audience even laughed at an Alzheimer’s patient suggesting she will take her own life shows how the play fails to hit the mark. If perhaps the science fiction like noise could be removed, the plot cleaned, and the arguments tightened, there is an excellent play hidden within. Unfortunately this draft, despite the imposing rotating cube, fails to reveal it.

13 runs at the National Theatre until the 8th of January 2012.


Emperor and Galilean review

The English premiere of what Ibsen considered to be his greatest triumph is not an easy piece to digest. This, his longest play which, like Peer Gynt, was written to be read rather than staged, indeed requires from its audience a theatrical endurance of epic proportions. Emperor and Galilean, like a marathon, feels worthy upon completion. Originally intended to be nine hours, Ben Power judiciously trimmed this gargantuan piece of two parts of five acts down to four acts which together come in just under four hours with a cast of 50.

It is astounding that this ambitious work of Ibsen’s, despite being penned in 1873, has never been performed in the United Kingdom considering his relative success on the capital’s west-end boards, with A Doll’s House, Peer Gynt, and Ghosts being particular favorites. The last Ibsen production I saw in London was Ralph Fiennes starring in Brand at the Royal Haymarket in 2003.

The tale the fourth-century AD Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (Andrew Scott), the last of the pagan emperor’s epic rise and tumultuous downfall, is the principle focus of the play. Laid before us is one man’s tortuous search for a philosophical truth and religious identity. Julian, through his tutor Maximus (Ian McDiarmid), questions free will and destiny, politics and religion, the body and spirit. The juxtaposition of human conceits and folly to that of our great endeavors and aspirations in this one work is scintillating. In true Ibsen form, the text provides a wealth of literature, biblical, and historical references that stay with the viewer long after the curtain goes down.

Andrew Scott is truly beginning to make a name for himself. He was recently seen briefly in the BBC’s Sherlock and at the Old Vic in Noel Coward’s Design for Living. Each time I see him onstage, I am ever more convinced of his talent  and impeccable timing. He somehow succinctly conveys the warring need for power and intellectual stimulation in this rather weak minded man. His performance was inspiring. O’Reilly’s character, similar to her performance earlier this year at The Comedy Theatre’s Birdsong, lacked substance. McDiarmid played the manipulative advisor Maximus frighteningly well.

It is due to the great capacities and capabilities that the National’s Olivier provides that this piece truly comes to dazzling light in this theatrical cathedral. Jonathan Kent’s staging effectively segments this monolith of a revolving stage. The death scene Helena (Genevieve O’Reilly), the multiple three levels created on the stage, and the ethereal lighting was breathtaking. In fact, it was the subsequent lack of levels and staging that somewhat disappointed in the second act. The military march through Babylon lacked resonance and Julian’s final death, after such great feats of staging, felt somewhat flat in this dessert between East and West.

There are a number of faults to be pointed out (Evian water bottle, confusing props, some fumbling with lines), but as the night I saw was a very early preview, I assume most of these will be smoothed. The contemporary screen projections with airplanes, the use of fluorescent colours on some of the costumes, and the camouflage on the soldiers all seemed at war with the epic tale being told. Somehow the details did not quite align in harmony. But so great was the tale, so impressive Scott’s performance that all minor criticisms seem of little import in the face of such a monumental production.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk


One Man, Two Guvnors review


Richard Bean has successfully transferred Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte comedy to the National Theatre Olivier’s stage.  The play is moved seamlessly from Venice in the 1740s to Brighton in the 1960’s.

The evermore chaotic plot circles around Goldoni’s Truffaldino, Bean’s newly christened Francis Henshall (James Corden) the joker in the tale, who finds himself to be working for two “guvnors”. The first is Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper), disguised as her dead twin who was in fact killed by her boyfriend. The other govner is indeed, and most unfortunately for Henshall, Rachel’s boyfriend, snooty public school boy Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris). Neither is aware of the other’s presence in Brighton and a great deal of the comedy arises from Henshall’s elaborate attempts to keep each guvnor in the dark and himself fed.

What makes this rather traditional, predictable comedy shine is the seamless combination of verbal and physical humour. The text is full of one-liners and running gags. Of particular note is the dinner scene. Triffaldino / Henshall runs back and forth in an ever greater frenzy between his two employers all the while trying to eat as much of the food as possible himself. In between totters the octogenarian waiter (Tom Edden) whose performance of instability is brilliant.

Corden is back at the National with director Hytner for the first time since 2004 when he shone in The History Boys. Despite harbouring some doubts regarding Corden, he gave an impressive performance that even included audience involvement. On the preview night, when asking (probably rhetorically) where he should take Dolly (Suzi Toase) on a first date, someone in the second row shouted “Somewhere with tablecloths” to which Corden sharply replied, “Hang around after the show and we’ll use your shirt”.

While Corden is the undoubtedly the paper chewing, hunger motivated, attention seeking focus of the plot, he is surrounded by strong performances. Chris plays the twit Stanley’s public school arrogance to clichéd perfection. Daniel Rigby’s would-be actor is spot on. Suzi Toase plays the redheaded secretary right on the edge between a hard headed woman and a lady in love. Her comedic timing is impeccable.

What really brings this joyful performance to life is the musical interludes led by composer Grant Olding. Walking into a theatre filled by swinging sets the scene for fun. The following solos by the principal members of cast gives a feeling that everyone is here to have a good time and helps the nearly three hour show fly by.

Mark Thompson’s set design feels like the scene of a Brighton post card come to life. The numerous scene changes keep the story fresh and alive.

This is not something new. Many of these gags were already done in Noises Off. It is not an outstanding, exemplary production, however it is great fun and you will leave with a smile on your face and feel you have indeed enjoyed an entertaining evening at the theatre.

Following its run at the National, One Man, Two Guvnors will go on tour, visiting Theatre Royal, Plymouth (October 4 – 8); The Lowry, Salford (October 11 – 15); New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham (October 18 – 22); and King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (October 25 – 29).


A Chekhov summer

The new theatre season is among us and what an exciting time it could prove to be.

The RSC has announced a season of plays that hark back to its illustrious history as it is celebrating its 40th birthday this year. An interesting article in the Financial Times enlightened me to some of the RSC’s triumphs over the years which are clearly myriad if I am to be honest. I was pleasantly surprised and excited in equal measure in the new-found knowledge that, in the past, they have premiered 5 of Harold Pinter’s plays that include one of my favourite in the deeply unsettling, The Homecoming which is the subject of a revival in the summer. The season also sees the RSC reviving two other successes over the annals of theatrical time; Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade and Dunsinane by David Greig.

The seemingly imperialist RSC are also premiering a play at the Hampstead theatre about a spacecraft designer and very much the man behind-the-scenes of Yuri Gagarin’s first orbit around the earth, Sergei Korolyov. The play is entitled Little Eagles and runs from the 16th April to the 7th May.

With the theme of revivals firmly in mind, The Royal Court are bringing back a play that they last staged more than 50 years ago. Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup with Barley deals with the effect the rapidly changing world is having on a Jewish family and is set over a period of 20 years. The play will be directed by Dominic Cooke who is currently enjoying success with Clybourne Park. Cooke remarked at his excitement of directing this play, “Bringing Arnold Wesker’s play back to the Royal Court after 50 years is an exciting prospect. Chicken Soup with Barley is an epic play that spans twenty years in the life of an East End Jewish family. It vividly captures a loss of political idealism, a feeling which chimes with our own confused times.”

And finally, two Chekhov plays are set for a revival within the coming weeks. Arcola Theatre are playing host in what promises to be a new imagining of Chekhov’s classic, Uncle Vanya. This interpretation has already received critical acclaim from both The Times and The Guardian and runs from the 27th April to the 4th June.

I have to admit, owing to a little snobbery on my part, I am more excited at the prospect of seeing another of Chekhov’s plays, The Cherry Orchard, which is showing at the National this Spring. Fresh from her acclaimed performance in the brilliant All My Sons last year, Zoe Wanamaker will be playing Madame Ranevskaya and Howard Davies will be directing. It is part of the National Theatre’s excellent Travelex season so some tickets will cost only a mere £12. The Cherry Orchard runs from 10th May- 28th July


Hamlet review

Hamlet has attracted some of the biggest names in film and theatre to play the conflicted, surreptitious and eccentric titular protagonist, but as a self-confessed philistine, I reluctantly admit this was the first time I had the pleasure to see Shakespeare’s classic tragedy on stage. I was treated to a Hamlet with such intensity, life, and humour, I could quite contentedly take my seat at the Olivier to see it again and I am sure I will be just as encapsulated.

The play has become ubiquitous on the UK stage in recent years with Jude Law, David Tennant and, most recently, John Simm taking on the role largely to critical acclaim.

Hamlet here is played by Rory Kinnear, who had a small role as a peripheral character in the much lauded political comedy the Thick of It.

A character of Hamlet’s sheer magnitude, presence and complexity was inhabited by an actor who at first seemed quite unassuming and innocuous but grew in to the role with verve. Kinnear’s physicality conflicted with my preconceptions of the character. He has a receding hairline, is rather small and baby faced but my preconceptions were soon cast aside as Kinnear grew exponentially in a note perfect foray into faux madness and clandestine plotting.

There was a child- like quality to his interpretation of the character, his energy and vivacity running concurrently with his petulance and the humorous ways he would conduct himself in order to maintain the façade of madness. This was clearly a man using the pain of his father’s death in order to feed his convincing portrayal of madness like some masochistic method actor. There are occasions that he conveys the essence of an angst ridden teenager behaving in such a way as to incur attention.

Nicholas Hytner’s production brought the play in to a 21st Century context and there is a definite stamp of the modern era within this production. Every word that is uttered within the palace walls is closely monitored by a security presence- their appearance akin to a sinister group of government agents; clad in dark glasses, black suits and ear pieces into which they are always seen speaking suspiciously hushed tones in to. A pertinent and clear device to show the claustrophobic and increasingly paranoid milieu that pervades Hamlet’s world whilst also looking at the same behaviours microcosmically which have a larger significance in an era where the CCTV camera reigns supreme.

The surrounding cast are excellent with Ruth Negga flowing with naivety and vulnerability in her Ophelia and to give the play a further thrust of 20th Century culture, she turns to the modern band X and Y for solace in the throes of a mental breakdown- a ready reminder that this is a Hamlet for the 20th Century. Clare Higgins is also excellent as Gertrude who is at once both strong and clearly absorbed by guilt and fear.

The play was cleverly staged and crafted with simplicity, allowing for it to flow and the audience to be immersed in the tragic events. The entire cast made this a performance I am glad to call the first of and I am sure what will prove to be many, productions of Hamlet- and I am confident that this will remain quite possibly, the best.

Hamlet runs at the Lyttleton theatre from 15th – 23rd April