LondonTheatre visits, July 1914
The last time I had a feast of theatre it mainly consisted of a diet of comedies. This time drama and tragedy dominated. Meaty stuff. These reviews consist of my personal opinions on the productions seen at one particular performance. As I am drama trained (Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama) and have an MA in English Literature (University of Leicester) and have been a drama adjudicator (Member of the Guild of Drama Adjudicators) for many years, my views are backed up by experience. If you have seen these productions, I’d be delighted to hear your views on them in the Comment section following the blog.
Richard The Third at Trafalgar Studios, directed by Jamie Lloyd, offers a far from traditional production of Shakespeare’s play. Taking the “winter of discontent” line from Richard’s first speech, the play has been brought forward to the end of the seventies when Britain is in decline. Setting the play in an office suggests that the conflicts to come are based on the soul-destroying intricacies of bureaucracy and the wrangling of office politics. An imaginative idea and I realise we are not meant to take the office scenario too literally. We are meant to think metaphorically, as the office scenario has to act as prison, court and battlefield; but the imposition of this image does cause problems for the logistics of the piece.
The rigidity of rows of desks (corridors of power?) constricts fluid movement and subtle insights. Shakespeare’s audacious scene in which Richard woos Anne over the coffin of her dead husband does not stand a chance of being convincing in this confined space. Most of the play’s key exchanges are in profile because of the positioning of the desks or pushed into a tiny corner, a device unhelpful to the depiction of character. And how, I wonder, looking ahead, how could those famous lines, ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,’ be rendered? I soon find out. Richard (Martin Freeman of The Hobbit and Sherlock fame) clearly feels so stupid having to say these lines in an office setting that he puts on a silly, squeaky voice and make a joke of them. Fancy being reduced to that! So – in my opinion – but not in everyone’s – the concept of the production was misconceived, forcing the actors into awkward positioning that impeded the storytelling. I think director, Jamie Lloyd, expects too much of the members of the audience, who have to hang on to plot, theme and character, surrounded by the clutter of an updated image imposed on the play.
As for Martin Freeman’s much awaited performance as Richard the Third, it did have things to recommend it. If you are following the charisma and expertise of previous actors in the role – Anthony Sher’s terrifying spider, Ian McKellen’s chilling Machiavellian general – you have to do something different. Freeman plays the role with a calculated cunning and the precise thought processes of a ruthless office manager, cutting up the script into short sharp pieces with his abrupt vocal delivery. He does not try to win over his followers with charm but still expects absolute loyalty from them, winning them over with promises he has no intention of keeping. His response when his followers disagree with him is like the Red Queen’s in Alice in Wonderland – “Off with his head.” No second chances with this cold fish. I find his performance consistent with the overall concept of the production and I liked the little touches of sly black humour, but it is not a performance to set the world on fire!
I must come clean and admit that this play is not a favourite of mine. It has a wonderfully evil central character it’s true, but the play is loosely constructed and the women’s roles are very unrewarding. They are victims of Richard’s regime and their lines mostly involve weeping and wailing. In this production the female actors played against this tendency, thank goodness, and managed to extract some perceptive insights into their miserable lives.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller, performed at The Old Vic, directed by Yaël Farber. Miller’s play about the Salem witch hunts in the 17th century and its ensuing trials was written as parallel to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s purging of suspected communists in the 1950s. As Sharon Monteith points out in the programme, the play “has lost none of its allegorical potency.”
The Crucible explores civil rights, in particular the persecution, detention and trial of demonised groups when evidence against them is unclear. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001 in New York, George W. Bush used similar language to that used in interrogations of potential witches in Salem, saying that “people are either with us or against us” and in Salem when Danforth warns “We burn a hot fire here, it melts down all concealment,” it is not difficult to make the leap and equate that statement with the Muslims held without trial in Guantánamo Bay. It is no coincidence that the play has proved popular in countries where tyranny is either on its way or has just past. The Crucible makes us aware of how easily injustice can spin out of control whether for religious or political reasons and warns about the dangers of self-righteous, fundamentalist beliefs, which take little note of individual opinions.
In this production of The Crucible the themes mentioned above are movingly portrayed. Seen in the round with the audience seated around the players, makes us feel as if we are part of the community of Salem. Apart from simple wooden chairs and tables moved to represent different locations there was no set either given or needed. The ornate designs normally seen in front of the galleries and boxes around the theatre are discreetly covered with neutral coloured drapes to represent the plain stone buildings of the town. The play is dressed traditionally in appropriate costumes for period, the colours muted and earthy, for the rural period setting. Each character has his or her own agenda as erstwhile friends or lovers are betrayed in the name of religion and justice. The “children” – young girls, nearly women – stage histrionics in court to accuse fellow townspeople and are believed because surely children are pure and have no agenda of their own. And because the persecutors are set on believing them. As the chain of events unfold, members of the community turn on each other and the horror increases, leading to the emotional climax.
Performing the play in the round does make us feel involved in the drama but there are times when characters masked the view of key scenes. I’m sure the girls’ hysteria and fainting is impressive but we only caught a glimpse of it. Just a little adjustment and all would have been well. Maybe someone needs to check the sightlines as these errors may have slipped in during the performances. Another adverse criticism of this otherwise excellent production is the tendency for actors to shout. Richard Armitage as John Proctor understood the role very well and portrayed the ambiguity of his feelings but spoilt his performance by shouting out his anger. A more internalised frustration and anguish would have been more effective. Christopher Godwin, as Judge Hathorne, plays the part on the same level throughout. His speeches are evenly paced and loud, boring to listen to, not terrifying as his intransigence should be.
In spite of the above comments, compared with other productions of this play I’ve seen, and this is the most satisfying. For the first time I can differentiate between the male clerics as each one makes his position, character and opinions apparent. In a cast of well-thought-out characterisations, all working together as a team, sharing similar emotions, all the acting is of a high level, contributing to the meaning of the play. For me, two performances stand out. Anna Madeley, playing Elizabeth Proctor, shows all the pent up emotion of a betrayed wife. Her coldness is palpable as she turns her back on her husband refusing to come to terms with what has happened. It seems that her mind wants to forgive him but her body refuses. Towards the end she shows her loyalty and her strength giving Proctor the freedom to choose his own fate her own opinion understated but quite clear. A controlled, beautifully paced piece of acting. The other actor I want to mention is Adrian Schiller as Reverend John Hale. He makes the journey from fervent witch hunter to disillusioned penitent. In his interview of John Proctor, he is a fierce interrogator, but he tries to be fair. His suspicions that everything is not as it seems lead to his final understanding that the court has been duped and that many people have been hanged in error. He is devastated. He and the court have been too quick to judge in their eagerness to stamp out witchcraft. Hale’s depiction of this change in perspective demonstrates Miller’s even-handedness. Even zealots can change their views and repent.
The sense of a once close-knit community being gradually destroyed by zealots is, rightly, emotionally draining. A long play – three and half hours – but it grips from beginning to end.
Medea by Euripides in a new version by Ben Power, directed by Carrie Cracknell on stage at The Olivier, National Theatre. First produced in 431BC, the plot revolves around Medea’s calculated revenge against her unfaithful husband, Jason, and culminates in the killing of her/their two young sons. The Athenian audience, shocked by this twist in the tale (traditionally the boys were thought to have been killed by the Corinthians after Medea’s escape) awarded the play only third place in the Dionisan festival; but the fascination with Medea has continued to modern times with many productions and adaptations.
The latest version, with Helen McCrory in the title role, is definitely one not to miss, as it builds in intensity through its one hour forty minutes playing time, without an interval.
The staging and costumes are contemporary. The set is a sparsely furnished huge room with a curved staircase leading to a gallery that serves as the upstairs area of Jason and Medea’s house and scenes at the palace. The stairs and gallery are also used effectively by the Chorus of Corinthian women who comment and advise Medea but, as is the tradition in Greek tragedy, cannot affect the action. But by far the most spectacular aspect of the staging is revealed when the full length, full width curtains upstage are pulled open to show the forest outside. On the level of metaphor this can be interpreted as the wild, barbarian side of Medea’s nature and also acts as a representation of the unfriendly outside world into which Medea is to be cast. On a practical level, the woods are where the children play and eventually killed.
The modern costumes have the men dressed in suits (but why do Creon and Aegeus have tan shoes?) The members of the chorus are dressed in three quarter, Laura Ashley-type dresses, suggesting weak, ineffectual women. In the first scene, Medea appears in battle fatigues or khaki joggers and T-shirt as if she had been working out, showing off her arm muscles giving an impression of strength. When she changes to attempt to seduce her husband, she is seen in a white all-in-one trouser suit in flowing Greek style, which makes her more feminine without losing the image of strength. Because, like ancient Greek audiences we know what happens, wearing white makes me imagine it covered in blood. I am not disappointed.
Many telling images in this production: Clauce donning the deadly golden robe and clutching her father, Creon, as they are both poisoned: Jason crawling away off stage after being confronted by his sons’ deaths: Medea hauling the body bags containing her dead children (huge rubbish sacks?) on to her back as she walks slowly through the forest carrying the burden of her murdered sons with her.
In a strong cast, Helen McCrory as Medea stands out. In one way it’s a wonderful role to play, but it cannot be one that evokes the sympathy of the audience. Or can it? We may consider Medea either innately evil or crazy or psychological disturbed but there is a frightening logic to her actions that cannot fail to fascinate. Here is a passionate woman so in love that she killed her brother in order to leave home with her lover, Jason, helped him win the golden fleece, bore him two children and yet still feels an outsider in a foreign land. When he selfishly chooses to marry someone else in order to improve his social position, Medea naturally feels rejected. She kills the children she loves because it is their deaths that will hurt Jason the most. I doubt there would be many women in the audience who believe they would go that far to take revenge on their husbands; but most women would find something to relate to in her resolve to make her husband suffer for the way he has treated her. I certainly viewed her, if not with admiration, with a certain awe for the strength of her resolve. This is not a crime committed in a moment of passion, but the revenge is based on passion. It is calculated step by step throughout the play in scene after scene as she plots her strategy. The gentle urging of the women to reconsider has no effect. Medea remains focussed on what she has determined to do. It’s this focus, this clear plan that makes the play so compelling. With the role of Medea in the hands of McCory, an actress who knows how to use the whole range of her voice and bodily movements to maximum effect, this focus on what has to done is terrifying to watch.
Greek theatre is meant to be a purging experience and judging by the emotional response of the audience, including the huge lump in my throat that would not go away, this production achieves its aim. The stage images and power of the central performance remain with me, determined not to fade.
Skylight by David Hare at Wyndham’s Theatre directed by Stephen Daldry, first is another piece of theatre about passion and the pain of separation. We discover that Tom (Bill Nighy) and Kyra (Carrie Mulligan) have been lovers and that she lived in the same house as his wife and son. When Tom’s wife finds out about their affair, -the discovery possibly deliberately contrived by Tom – Kyra walks out of his life, causing distress to his son as well as to her lover. After his wife dies of cancer, Tom seeks Kyra out again and finds her living in a very basic flat with few creature comforts and teaching in a school in a deprived neighbourhood. The chemistry is still there between them but Kyra has moved on, choosing a lifestyle very different from his. The difference between his affluent life as a successful restaurateur and her desire to live simply and devote her life to the under privileged in society is the crux of the difference in perspective that divides them.
The staging of this sparsely furnished flat is cleverly designed, so that we get an idea of its cramped interior layout and the poor district in which it is set. A forbidding block of flats dominates the skyline and we see the windows lit up when the inhabitants come home from work and the darkness when they go to bed, establishing the routine of their lives. Costumes are contemporary. Kyra’s trousers and top are stylish but neither ostentatious nor cheap. She is far from being a slob and the concept of her being own person, confident in her own skin, is helped by the choice of costumes. Tom’s suit and that gorgeous long, tailored black overcoat demonstrate his status and sex appeal. Both Tom and Kyra, in spite of their assumed confidence are not happy and are more vulnerable than we realise at first. .
The acting throughout is impeccable. Mathew Beard as Tom’s eighteen-year-old son, Edward, gives a likeable, accomplished performance to top and tail the play. Although he is used by David Hare to give us context to his father’s affair, he is a well-drawn character in his own right, showing that the break-up of a relationship can affect others as well as the couple involved. He misses Kyra and has fallen out with his discontented father.
The central roles are played in a way that makes us believe we are viewing a slice of real life. Cary Mulligan, in her West End debut, portrays Kyra as a woman with a clear sense of belief in herself and her choice of life-style, but she is not happy and still in love with Tom. Bill Nighy, as Tom, captivates, not just Kyra but also the audience with his wit and buoyant self-assurance, but underneath a vulnerable inner self is gradually revealed. He’s a lonely man who has been sitting at home licking his wounds after the loss of his wife and has been undergoing a tetchy relationship with his son. The chemistry between Kyra and Tom is plain in their body language and repartee as they carefully avoid touching each other and cook spaghetti, negotiating the inevitable awkwardness of meeting again, yet accustomed to each other’s physicality. We are not surprised when the first act ends with Tom dismissing the chauffeur waiting in the car outside and Kyra flies into his arms. While we have an interval drink we can imagine what they are doing and it’s not eating spaghetti.
The second act is more serious. Their physical passion slaked, they are more at ease with each other and we get to the meat of the play. As always, David Hare considers the personal as political and puts their relationship into its social context. The image of Kyra eating spaghetti on the floor in the middle of the night – she has to get up early to go work the next morning – and Tom climbing over her to sit in the chair behind her, cradling her shoulders between his legs demonstrates this ease, but, as they talk, their differences in outlook become apparent. The great difference between them is not just in their life-styles, but also their ideologies and a gap is exposed that it seems cannot be breached. As Tom says, ‘Even I know that one fuck does not mean we are having a relationship.’ Their attitudes to life appear incompatible.
When I first saw this play in 1995 at the Cottesloe, The National Theatre, with Michael Gambon and Leah Williams in the leading roles, I felt the argument well balanced between the two characters, but I tended to veer towards Kyra’s point of view. This time, maybe because I have moved on myself, I am far more critical of Kyra’s intransigent stance. The time the play was written, after the excesses of the eighties’ pursuit of money may have made Kyra’s decision more palatable. But now her determination to live frugally and continue with a teaching job she does not enjoy seems to me to be based on self-punishment for her love affair. She is flagellating herself because of her guilt, determined to spend her life helping others to the detriment of her own happiness. When Tom asks her what she wants out of life in the future, her answer is she intends to continue in exactly the same way. For a man who loves her and can offer her a more comfortable – and possibly more rewarding life, her adamant belief that she must deprive herself of happiness must be difficult for him to accept. At one point he jokingly suggests he move in with her, but we know this austere life-style would not suit him.
The change in my perspective of the central discourse is personal, not an adverse criticism of the writing or the performances, both of which I enjoyed as much this time as in the earlier production. Skylight is a production and performances not to be missed.
I revisited Handbagged by Moira Buffini, directed by Indhu Rubasingham at the Vaudeville Theatre, as my friend, Holly, wanted to see it. It was well worth worth seeing again, especially for the one-liners. and provoked an interesting discussion in the interval about Thatcherism and Royalism. See a previous blog for a full review.