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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.
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The Duchess of Malfi

In the poem ‘Whispers of Immortality’, TS Elliot says of the playwright John Webster, ’Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin’. This rather pertinent couplet offers a microcosmic view of what to expect from the work of Webster. He was a man obsessed by the darker faculties of the human condition.  Perhaps his most famous play, The Duchess of Malfi, has been revived at the Old Vic by director Jamie Lloyd, whose most recent output was the brilliant Faith Machine at the Royal Court.

This Jacobean tragedy takes place in the court of Amalfi and is set upon a beautifully ornate backdrop of a labyrinth of intricately patterned walkways- a perfect place for a pernicious intelligencer to go unnoticed. The story centres on the eponymous Duchess, a recent widow, who has two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who want a significant part of her inheritance and are loath to allow her to marry again.

In order to prevent this from happening, Ferdinand hires Bosola, an intelligencer and former servant to the Cardinal, to spy on the Duchess and report back in the event of anything suspicious occurring. The fate of the Duchess takes an ominous turn when she falls in love with Antonio, a lowly steward, and embarks on a secret relationship with him, trying her utmost to keep her secret away from her psychopathic brothers.

The emotionally demanding role of the Duchess is delicately portrayed by actress Eve Best, most noted for her roles in The Kings Speech and American TV drama, Nurse Jackie. She is but the innocent party in a bevy of wolves that are made manifest by her brothers.

Ferdinand’s descent in to madness is also brilliantly realised by actor Jamie Lloyd with his rodent like features and slick black hair, he gives off the air of a deeply disturbed, conflicted and mercurial man, wildly confused in his feelings for his sister- from the very moment he enters stage and before he opens his mouth, you know already that you are watching one of the main villains of the piece.

This production is truly horrific at times as we see the extent people will go in order to get what they want. The contrasting villains of the calculated Cardinal with the hot blooded and belligerent Ferdinand are brilliantly realised as is the conflicted Bosola- even in his darkest moments, there is always a flicker of humanity and remorse for his actions and this makes him a truly fascinating character.

This production comes recommended although I do warn you, it isn’t for the faint hearted! Webster liked to explore the darkness of humanity and The Duchess of Malfi has it in spades.


Love Song

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Love Song – such a whimsical title. It is clear from the second scene of this Frantic Assembly that this is indeed the aim of the author Abi Morgan – to compose a theatrical love song of sorts to unfold upon the stage. 

We start at the end and simultaneously the beginning. Two couples enact this tale of the story of Maggie and Billy, both in its youth and old age; an interesting concept. The stage is covered in autumnal fallen leaves –suggesting that the real emphasis lies in the winter of this relationship, rather than the hoped for spring.  

The young couple (Edward Bennett and Leanne Rowe) move to America to further his dental career. She, after losing the hope of bearing children, finds her self with little to occupy her time and so becomes a librarian. It is a typical tale of 1950’s middle class couples.  There are arguments, money troubles, fidelity issues, conception obstacles, and the inevitable challenges that arise with old age (Sam Cox and Sian Phillips). So here we are, presented with two ends of the spectrum and rather than an array of colours in between, all that I could see was grey.

This tale of the childless couple getting by with just each other has been told before. In order to make this at times extremely touching story fly, the author needed to incorporate depth, personality, passion. Yet none of that comes through in this production. Frantic Assembly focus on movement in their productions and you can see that here, movement plays an important roll in the telling of this story. It is excellently staged and the stories intertwine seamlessly, yet much like the attempted choreographed dance interludes, the telling of this worn out tale is lifeless. Even Maggie’s chosen last moments lacked any conviction. I remained unmoved. 

Many of the choreographed staging moments should have been cut by directors Scott Graham and Steve Hoggett who really should know better. The multi-media back panelling added little to the stagnant set.

By the end of  “Love Song” I had lost interest. There was a distinct lack of substance to these characters.  I longed for texture and depth, the stuff that any good love song is comprised of.  However, this lacklustre love song  was markedly missing the all important verses, in the end being incapable of moving beyond the redundant the chorus.

Lovesong is on until 4 February at the Lyric Hammersmith.  Click here to book tickets or call 0871 221 172


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.


The Playboy of the Western World review

Upon it’s premier at the Abbey theatre in Dublin in 1907, John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World was opened to riots owing to its perceived derisive and libelous perception of Irish people and was described as a ‘vile and inhuman story told in the vilest language ever listened to in a public forum’ with some authors calling for Synge to be killed. Nowadays, a reaction like that would undoubtedly fill the theatre to capacity with every attendee wanting to see what would cause such a vociferous response.
This play certainly does not pack the socially divisive punch of its 1907 premier but within the beautifully crafted and mellifluous words, therein lies a dark heart.

The production, currently at the Old Vic and directed by John Crowley, centres on the character of Christy Mohan, played by the impish Robert Sheehan who you may well be familiar with if you’ve had the opportunity to see channel 4’s angst-ridden-teen-superhero-drama-cum-comedy Misfits.

Sheehan’s Christy wanders meekly into a local tavern, and tells a tall-tale of murdering his father. This disingenuous story of patricide immediately transforms the cowardly Mohan in to a local celebrity and the object of affection from some of the local women. He takes a particular shine to Pegeen, played with sternness and vigour by Ruth Negga and charms his way, on the basis of his new-found tough reputation, to obtaining a job at the very tavern Pegeen earns her keep as a bar maid.

Christy, to the amusement of the audience, indulges in his new found fame by desperately trying to embody the gallant and murderous playboy by retelling ad nauseum, how the scene of his father’s murder played out, and subsequently impressing a bevy of  young women much to the irritation of Pegeen.

Sheehan’s performance  as the eponymous playboy is accomplished and at times very funny. He has a great, lank physicality that he uses to comedy effect as he portrays an idealised version of himself. His charm in deceit was worked to hilarious affect as he tries to cling to his fabrication and the characters around him become totally bewitched until a significant plot development seeks to scupper his plans.

This was however, far from being a perfect production. There were occasions, perhaps owing to my ominously early onset of depleted hearing, where I missed tracts of speech which was mainly owing to my ears taking a while to adapt to the rhythm and thickness of the Irish accent. I was also a little disappointed that the play’s dark theme of a young man lying about the murder of his own father and consequently becoming a local pariah and hero was not explored through Christy’s character. Christy undergoes a significant transformation and the climax is really meant to bring home the dramatic transition and embittered maturity of his character. The tone however remained the same; jovial and light, entertaining but, and I am reluctant to say this, largely forgettable.

Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the performance; the stagecraft was excellent and the language was of a beauty that was at times worthy of comparison with Shakespeare. But this is not a performance that will linger around in the memory for very long, which is saddening given the strength of the material.

The Playboy of the Western World runs until 26th November


Julian Sands in a Celebration of Harold Pinter

I was not quite sure what to expect when travelling to the Rose Theatre in Kingston to see Julian Sands in a Celebration of Harold Pinter. This past year I have attended three Pinter productions in London and been extremely moved by the playwright’s accurate portrayal the emotive layers of the human psyche, by his simplistic and direct conveyance of the chaotic through the medium of theatre. Pinter, when done well hums, vibrates through the air and hits a pitch that few others in his field can match. When done poorly, well lets just say you would rather stay at home for the evening.

So on to the stage walked Julian Sands, the British actor who first caught my attention in his portrayal of Liszt in the film “Chopin”. His figure was striking against the black stage as he entered. His cool crisp English accent cut through the still air as he breathed life into the written words of Pinter.

This one man show, which originated earlier this year at the Edinburgh fringe festival, is directed by John Maklovich. It is a piece I wish I could have experienced in rehearsal to witness the interaction between Malkovich and Sands. As it was, I tried to imagine the interplay between the two during parts of the piece. During deliberate pauses or ironic tilts of the head, I could sense Malkovich’s guidance.

It is argued that Pinter may be the greatest UK playwright of the 20th century. Yet in this production it is the poetry and the man that Sands focuses upon. Sands personal admiration and compassion for this stage legend come through in every breath of the performance. He admires both the weaknesses and the strengths of Pinter’s character. Through personal anecdotes, private stories, and reading of the written word, the audience feels as if they are presented with a rare glimpse behind the scenes of Pinter the public figure. His character comes alive through this three dimensional representation which this piece presents.

Pinter’s poem “I know the place. It is true. Everything we do corrects the space between me and you” stands as a corner piece of Pinter’s deceptively simplistic style. Sands recollects how the writer, upon a misreading, suggests that he should read it and that one day he may understand it’s meaning. And it is in this that we find the true essence of Pinter, his words, language, literature will represent different meanings at different stages in each of our lives. His work does not stagnate, but evolves with the reader’s development and understanding.

This production is a moving portrayal of the lesser-known works of Pinter by a talented and well-informed performer. It was a pure joy and intellectual challenge to experience this performance, just as all Pinter, I believe, is meant to be. I left the theatre and went straight to buy the book “Various Voices”. I challenge you not to do the same.


The Kitchen at The National

The frenetic, chaotic and, at times, balletic goings-on in a busy London- based kitchen is well realised in a revival of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen, currently being staged at the Olivier theatre.
Wesker’s play, originally performed in 1959 at the Royal Court, is directed by Bijan Sheibani and the Olivier’s vast stage is maximised with meticulous detail to the typical bustling late 50’s kitchen aesthetic. The actors utilise the naturalistic milieu with grace and verve as I observed with delight the brilliant stagecraft as even the gas hobs on the ovens were fully functional.

The play is set within one day and has a plethora of characters that are touched upon in small but rich detail. The central focus is on the mercurial Peter, played with Teutonic swagger, by the excellent Tom Brooke, who was last seen in the acclaimed recent production of I Am the Wind at the Young Vic.

Peter is having an illicit affair with Monique, a waitress; and has aspirations to settle down with her, but owing to his belligerent nature, finds himself arguing with her and his colleagues on more than one occasion.

The play is rich in themes and ideas that, although performed more than 50 years ago, still remain salient to this day, which is perhaps the purpose of its well-timed revival. The themes, which include racial tensions, the pursuit of love and how a mechanized and habitual way of being is destructive to your imagination and dreams, are conveyed calculatedly within this busy setting.

The kitchen itself is made up of a whole range of different nationalities which boils over when one character tells Peter and his German compatriot, Hans, to ‘Speak bloody English!’

Peter is ultimately the fulcrum of the production, becoming increasingly more capricious as the play progresses and you learn the source of his discontent. There’s a wonderful scene after the chaotic lunch service, when Peter implores his peers to speak of their dreams and they all seem to struggle to respond, numbed by the cruel machinations of their current occupational predicament and unwillingness to play.

The beautifully choreographed scenes during the first half when lunch is served explore with humour and wonderful theatricality, the rhythmic and maddening chaos that occurs within the kitchen. The boss, Marango, enters during this time and acts as the conductor of his bevy of culinary craftsmen, waitresses and washers as they waltz their way around the kitchen.

The pace of the production does seem to slow in the second half as you join the characters in a moment of peace and reflection after the chaos of lunch.

This production is wonderfully served and at £12 for a ticket, is highly recommended.

The Kitchen at the National Theatre until the 9th November