I’ve been lucky enough to continue my London theatre visits this year. Several regular readers of my blogs have mentioned that they’re missed my play reviews. Because I’ve not written them up straightaway, the following offerings are likely to be short, a list of what I’ve seen and some short comments about what I thought about each production.
The Oresteia by Aeschylus at the Almeida Theatre, updated and directed by Robert Icke. This production has now moved to The Trafalgar Theatre in London’s West End so can still be seen. Warning. It’s a trilogy so it does run for over three hours. Maybe three and a half. But well worth it. Don’t miss it. The theme is still relevant after all these years.
My opinion. During the first part of the trilogy the tension on stage and in the audience is unyielding. We hold our communal breath during the lead up to the first act of violence that will form the basis on which the others depend. Agamemnon faces a terrible dilemma. Should he sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, for the sake of the State? Should one life be forfeited to prevent the deaths of hundreds others? During the quiet scene in which the trusting little girl sits on her father’s knee and drinks the poison, a new meaning is given to the term, dramatic tension. There’s a huge lump in my throat – and everyone else’s I imagine. I can scarcely breathe. I have never felt such oneness with other members of the audience during a performance of any play in any theatre at any time.
When the promised wind arrives, sweeping across the stage like a gush of dry leaves, we realise that Agamemnon’s sacrifice has reaped its reward. But is it justified? The repercussions of that first act of violence are frightening. To quote Aeschylus, it’s ‘an eternal law: blood that is spilled demands more blood.’ Klytemnestra, Agmemnon’s wife, murders her husband, Agamemnon (and his concubine, Cassandra) in revenge for the murder of her child. Orestes avenges his father’s death by murdering his mother. The play asks if there is ever justification for violence. This is the premise of the play as it examines how far the action of an individual is connected to family and the community. How does one family’s strife relate to the social order? Who or what is responsible for acts of violence? In a time of intense social disquiet such as in our current world this play, written in the 5th Century BC about violence and the search for justice in society, continues to resonate.
Robert Icke’s production gives us an old story updated with modern dialogue, costumes and setting. Designed by Hildegarde Bechtler, the set is stark in its whiteness. A transparent division between the upstage and downstage areas suggests the intimacy of inner rooms, including a bathroom, a place where intimate family secrets take place including murder. Once this transparent curtain is raised, for example in the trial scene, it could signify that there are no private, familial areas left and therefore no secrets that do not concern the state.
At the Almeida, for me, the second half of the play lost a lot of tension. Orestes’s procrastination became tedious as did the eternal retelling of the same events. The trial scene was repetitious, drumming home the different sides of the argument. Whether this was due to the original play by Aeschylus or whether it was the fault of the updated version by Robert Icke, or whether three and a half hours is just too long for modern audiences to concentrate I’m not sure. I would like to see this production again at The Trafalgar Studios to see if my reservations still hold. I wonder if I’ll have the stamina to stay to the end….
Three days in the Country by Patrick Marber, a version of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, at The National Theatre,.
My opinion: Do try to see this one. Why? For Marber’s stylish writing and directing, for the ambience of long sunny afternoons, for the innovative simple staging that encourages us to think in stage metaphors, for the humour and compassion with which the interlinked stories of love and unrequited love are told. And for the high standard of acting which showed animation and lassitude, passion and acceptance.
Postscript: John Simm I love you!
Everyman, a new adaptation of the medieval morality play by Carol Ann Duffy, directed by Rufus Norris at The National Theatre
My opinion: Ensemble playing at its best, the cast headed by Chiwetel Ejiofor so that can’t be bad. Kate Duchene as God was outspoken and down-to-earth. The script was both lyrical and coarse, a good combination, as the storyline reflected contemporary life in all its squalor and the dangers of living only for today. Lighting, sound and special effects gave us glitz and squalor.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller at The Noel Coward Theatre
My opinion: An opportunity to see this classic American play again but the reason I went was to see the two actors, Anthony Sher and Harriet Walter, in the leading roles and they certainly did not disappoint. The layered set worked well to suggest the layout of the house – convenient for eavesdropping. This family drama about a salesman who has not reached his targets and his son who refuses to follow the path his father has chosen for him, could be seen as the loss of the American dream. Somehow in this production at least, the idea is planted that there is more than one way to keep faith with your own integrity.
Constellations by Nick Payne at Trafalgar Studios, directed by Michael Longhurst
My opinion: Slick, clever script, based on the vagaries of time as a forking path. It embraces the different possibilities of the lives of two people. In some versions they are partners, in others passing strangers. The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics proposed by physicist, Hugh Everett, forms the basis of Nick Payne’s play. The intricate changes of position and the still moments, are almost like watching a mechanical dance with predestined movements. Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey play Roland and Marianne with precision. See it, if you’re up for something a bit different. It’s quite short – plays straight through in 90 minutes.
Hayfever by Noel Coward at the Duke of York’s, directed by Lindsay Posner
My opinion: I’m afraid this production didn’t do it for me. The tone wasn’t light and frothy enough, the dialogue often forced. The worst thing about it was that it wasn’t funny. There was hardly any laughter from the audience. Maybe the play is too dated for us to appreciate now. Or maybe, as I suspect, the cast and director hadn’t quite caught the style, tone and pace of the piece. Sorry, I was not amused.
Photograph 51, a new play by Anna Zeigler, directed by Michael Grandage
My opinion: the main attraction for many members of the audience was to see Nicole Kidman’s return to the London stage. She certainly gave an impressive performance in the unglamorous role of Rosalind Franklin, the physicist who played her part in the discovery of the secret of life, DNA. The play traces her work from the time of her arrival at Kings College London to the taking of the seminal Photograph 51. At first she is under-appreciated by her male colleagues. Her dedication to her work and her lack of social skills reveal her as an isolated person but there are signs that she has human qualities when a famous American scientist arrives. The style of the play itself is an interesting combination of formalised narrative to the audience and naturalistic dialogue. The dark and gloomy two-layered set portrays the basement of the bio-physics laboratory at Kings College where these discoveries were made in 1957. The worldly ambition of the male scientists is contrasted with Franklin’s more pure motives as she looks for scientifically proved answers. She will not jump to conclusions in order to court fame or win a prize. How difficult it must have been for a woman at this time to work in such a male-dominated field. That the other five actors on the stage with her are male makes this point theatrically.
Hangmen by Martin McDonagh directed by Mathew Dunster at The Royal Court
My opinion: A strong piece of theatre, the first play McDonagh has written for ten years. He hasn’t lost his touch for bold, witty yet subtle dialogue, nor for tackling controversial subjects. Although set in the sixties just after hanging in England has been abolished, the fallibility of the British justice system is still relevant today. But this play is not an intellectual discussion about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment. It’s a black comedy that shocks us into recognition of the flaws in human nature and the danger of provocative behaviour.
The opening scene is set in a prison cell in 1963 where James Hennessy (a thinly disguised James Henratty, hanged in 1961 and later found innocent) is about to be hanged. The condemned man is terrified and protests his innocence. The hangman and his team just want to get the job done and have their breakfast. The scene is written and played in heightened comedic vein, with dark one-liners, crass violence and verbal abuse that highlights the difference between northerners and southerners, all themes and styles that continue to be explored throughout the play. The scene ends with the actual hanging. Dramatic, terrifying, heart-stopping stuff.
Most of the rest of the play takes place two years later in a pub in Oldham. Harry, the hangman-landlord (David Morrissey), pulls pints the same way he pulled the lever for the hangings. His main clientele consists of his cronies and a plainclothes police inspector who props up the bar. These regulars are all northern and the dialogue comes quick and fast, something I as a southerner had to tune into as did Mooney (Johnny Flynn), the stranger from the south who becomes the trigger that sparks off the plot. I won’t give the story away but suffice it to say that if you find yourself with a spare corpse on your hands I recommend going to the professionals, Harry and Syd to dispose of it. They will know what to do.
If you like your comedy like your coffee, black without sugar, laced with a tinge of fear, don’t miss this one.