Review – Rough for Theatre II and Endgame, The Old Vic, 29th February 2020

88183326_133168874749334_6195709823078629376_nA double-bill of Beckett plays is always going to be a challenge, but hopefully a good one. The current Old Vic production directed by Richard Jones comes with a terrific pedigree, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming in one reasonably familiar play and another rarely performed piece. Does it measure up to those high expectations? Read on, gentle reader…

Clov and HammI admit, I’d never heard of Rough for Theatre, neither piece I or piece II – they were written in the late 1950s, in French, naturellement. Fragment deux, that opens this production, is a 25-minute snippet where two bureaucrats examine the life, worth, anxieties and achievements of a man, C, frozen in a window frame, ready to leap (presumably to his death). During the process we learn a little about this man, but we understand much more about the characters of the two office men. A (Daniel Radcliffe), clearly superior, with a natural, relaxed authority, simple clarity of thought and speech versus B (Alan Cumming), flustered, neurotic, insecure, longing to bask in the glory of being in the company of A.

Rough for Theatre IIMessrs Radcliffe and Cumming bring this two-hander to life as a sparklingly unsettling comedy, savage in its contempt for the fate of the man about to jump, but also revealing the strange professional relationship between the two observers. Much funnier than it had any right to be, this little play has the ability to make you laugh, cringe, and appreciate how much we clutch at straws to make life bearable. A terrific opener.

HammAfter the interval we returned for Beckett’s Endgame, or Fin-de-Partie in its original French, that stalemate end to a chess game where no one can make a meaningful move, and there’s certainly no chance of winning. Me to play, Hamm may gleefully announce, but then what? There he sits, blind, imperious, inconsequentially veering from the bland to the bullying, and all for nothing. He whistles for his servant, Clov, who attends in a flash, but is sarcastic, resentful and unhelpful, attempting to return some of the cruelty that had been handed out to him. Preserved but useless, Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, inhabit their dustbins in a corner of the stage, reminiscing about the good old days, with just an old dog biscuit to eat. You can take the chess analogy as far as you like; depending on your fondness for the game it might illuminate or obscure whatever meaning you feel Beckett has written into it.

ClovI’d never seen Endgame on stage before, but had only read it; and what feels like organised stasis on the page comes to vivid life in a way you couldn’t dream of in this stunning production. From the moment Daniel Radcliffe enters the stage and decides to open the curtains, it’s an amazing and spellbinding performance. He remembers he needs his ladder, hits himself for forgetting, then when he finally gets the ladder into place he climbs up it in a most extraordinary manner and, having opened the curtains, comes down in another, ridiculous and hilarious way; forgets the ladder, hits himself again, and so it goes on. It has the audience in hysterics. Throughout the play, Mr Radcliffe adopts a most uncomfortable, but riveting to watch, gait; bouncing, hobbling, sliding over every available surface. But much more than this, he invests Clov with a fascinating characterisation; sullen, bitter, frustrated, but alarmingly obedient and essentially impotent.

Nagg and NellAlan Cumming’s Hamm is a truly ghastly creation, sitting on his throne (a masterful piece of design work by Stewart Laing), his withered, dangly legs reflecting his loss of power. Marvellously smug, viciously cruel, he blathers on confidingly with observations of past life, confronting Clov with petty vindictiveness; in fact, it’s a superb portrayal of a grotesque man clinging on to the wreckage of life. His patronising treatment of his parents in the bin is riddled with sneering and malice, whilst they wait, innocently and pointlessly, for something to happen. The performances of Karl Johnson as Nagg and Jane Horrocks as Nell are a pure delight, as they blink their way out of the darkness in which they are kept, fondly holding onto distant memories of escapades on the tandem in the Ardennes, or rowing on Lake Como. It’s incredibly moving how they continue to look after each other even though their lives have now come to naught.

Hamm and ClovOne cavil – from Mrs Chrisparkle – Nell and Nagg’s dustbins could have done with being placed just a few inches higher on stage; someone’s big hair a few rows in front of her obscured her view of Ms Horrocks’ face throughout the play – which is a substantial and unfortunate element to miss in this production. However, with razor-sharp direction and pinpoint accurate performances, this double-bill converts two difficult-to-appreciate texts into two rivetingly funny and tragic pieces of theatrical magic. Two hours 15 minutes (minus the interval) of hanging on the edge of your seat for the next deliciously delivered line or piece of memorable comic business. We absolutely loved it.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five alive, let theatre thrive!

Review – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Old Vic, 22nd April 2017

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are DeadProposition: The works of Tom Stoppard become progressively more irritating the older you become – Discuss. And a syllogism: One) recently I’ve seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties and Arcadia and they were all heavy going. Two) those plays were written by Tom Stoppard in the 60s, 70s and 90s. Conclusion: Stoppard is all mouth and no trousers.

Old VicIt’s a shame, really it is. I remember how I loved this play with a passion when I was 15. I saw it at the Criterion on a school jaunt, with Christopher Timothy and Richard O’Callaghan as the cipher courtiers. I read it avidly. I marvelled at the wordplay. I was fascinated by Stoppard’s refreshingly innovative themes. I adored (still do) the originality of its structure. What never struck me was the possibility that it was all just too clever-clever and lacked heart. Watching it today, that’s almost the only thing that does strike me. I’m a huge drama fan and I’ve fallen out of love with Tom Stoppard. Woe is me, I am undone. Ecce homo, ergo elk.

Daniel RadcliffeLet’s just dwell on that structure again. Somewhere in space and time, the play of Hamlet is taking place. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Hamlet, although two of the most minor characters of the play, are offstage, because they haven’t had their first cue yet. They have no other purpose in life – not to the play, not to Hamlet (despite allegedly being “friends”), not to themselves. Basically, they just have to sit around, spinning coins, and waiting for something to happen. Eventually the play of Hamlet catches up with them, as Claudius and Gertrude welcome them to the court, with the whole Hamlet scene invading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s stage. They have their conversation about keeping an eye on how Hamlet’s behaving, and then the king and queen sweep off, signifying that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have left the action of Hamlet, and remain behind to inhabit their own lives for a little while until the next time their and Hamlet’s lives intersect.

Joshua McGuireMeanwhile the Player King, Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia and so on drift in and out of R & G’s world as Shakespeare’s plot develops, even though R & G’s involvement doesn’t. Eventually they get given a job to do – to accompany Hamlet to England (and to his intended death). Students of the Bard have argued for centuries whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knew that they were escorting Hamlet off this mortal coil, or whether they were also innocents abroad. Stoppard makes it crystal clear that R & G were the fall guys, as we see Hamlet return to Denmark, but they do not (dead, see.) It’s an incredibly clever piece of writing – the linguistic representation of some mathematic genius. And you do, indeed, feel sorry for our antiheroes, caught up in a web of international intrigue, when all they’re really any good for is spinning coins.

Player King and the TragediansFor the illusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to work, you have to believe absolutely in the concept of the two parallel plays taking place at the same time and how they interweave at those dangerous corners. Therefore, it’s vital that you believe unquestioningly in the stage dominance of Claudius and Gertrude. In Hamlet, they control proceedings alongside the eponymous hero. Sadly, in this production, I found that Wil Johnson’s Claudius, in particular, had an element of pantomime about him, and I couldn’t see him as this strong, villainous, murdering king. Diminish the power of the Hamlet element to this play and you diminish the play as a whole. Similarly, Luke Mullins’ Hamlet was for me a little too jocular, a little too stagey. I didn’t get the sense of his troubled soul; and without it, R & G are even more pointless than they are in the first place.

R&G 2And then you have the Player King and his entourage: David Haig in full declamatory mode, puffing up the character’s already considerable sense of self-importance, mortally wounded to have lost their audience participation at their first encounter, idly taking mild sexual advantage of the young tragedian Alfred. It’s not an easy role to get the tone absolutely right; and I did find the character a little more monotonous than when I remembered it, or imagine it in my mind’s eye. It wasn’t helped by those travelling tragedians; although their performance was probably exactly how those roving casts used to appear, I still found the sight (and sound) of them rather wearing. I found it all rather laid on with a trowel and could have appreciated something a little subtler. As I said, I’ve fallen out of love with Stoppard.

Rosencrantz and GuildensternThat’s not to say there aren’t elements of the production that weren’t highly entertaining. The moment, for example, when our two courtiers attempt to force Hamlet to drag Polonius’ body into their “trap” is simple and extremely funny. Perhaps wisely, they don’t follow Stoppard’s original stage direction of having Rosencrantz’ trousers fall down whilst he’s removed his belt. The scene where it appears that Guildenstern has murdered the Player King is incredibly effective. But there aren’t many moments of physical humour to alleviate the burden of the cerebral nature of the nub of the play.

Player King and AlfredThat said, none of this prevents me from appreciating the two excellent performances from Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. As Rosencrantz, Mr Radcliffe absolutely nails the introvert intensity of the character; slow to respond and react, keeping his own counsel, simply saying what he sees rather than what he thinks. As the complete opposite, Mr McGuire is perfect as Guildenstern’s extrovert loose cannon; flying off the handle, panicking loudly, trying to understand the whys and wherefores of the situation in which they find themselves. As the characters almost present themselves as two halves of one whole, the intricate dovetailing of their speeches and stage business is done with immaculate accuracy and a beautiful lightness of touch. This is the third time we’ve seen both actors on stage (Mr Radcliffe always as a troubled soul – Equus, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Mr McGuire always as a brash nincompoop – Amadeus, The Ruling Class) and they never fail to impress with their superb commitment and artistry. As an acting masterclass, they give a magnificent display.

R&G discover they're going to dieMrs Chrisparkle fell almost instantly asleep within the first few minutes of the play as she simply couldn’t keep up with Stoppard’s smartarseness. She awoke when the Player King and his entourage took control of the stage about an hour later. That was the point that I yielded to sleep because I found the characters so irritating. We both enjoyed the final act, after the interval, much more. But I think that all probably says much more about our own inability to put up with Stoppard than the production itself. So, if I return to my original proposition: yes he does. And my syllogism: well, it’s a syllogism, innit.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Cripple of Inishmaan, Noel Coward Theatre, 3rd August 2013

The Cripple of InishmaanIt’s back to the Noel Coward Theatre for the third play in the Michael Grandage season, Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. We’d not seen anything by Mr McDonagh before, and I think I was expecting something rather dour and dismal, a tale of Old Aran out of J M Synge; Riders to the Sea meets Brian Friel, that kind of thing. What I wasn’t expecting was to be in convulsions of laughter before the first minute was out.

Christopher Oram’s set is suitably sparse and gives a credible impression of the cold poverty and drabness of the Isles of Aran in 1934. The grocers shop that has everything you need provided it’s peas or unpopular sweets, the shore with the fishing boat, the featureless bedrooms and the makeshift cinema with a sheet for a screen are all quietly impressive, help the story move forward and provide a sense of intimacy.

Daniel RadcliffeThese Michael Grandage productions are promoted as star vehicles – Simon Russell Beale, Judi Dench, Sheridan Smith, Jude Law; and for this production, Daniel Radcliffe. There’s obviously a huge temptation for members of the audience to take sneaky pictures of the stars, which of course as we all know is Strictly Forbidden. To emphasise the fact, as the curtain was about to rise, two of the ushers stood at the front of the stage and held up little laminated sheets with a picture of a camera crossed out and the words “no photos”. They held them there, defiantly, in silence, for what seemed an age. In an act of civil disobedience, the lady behind me said to her companion, “go on, take a picture of them”. Spelling the message out in this rather laborious and atmosphere-killing way looked terribly out of place. Presumably it’s ok to take a picture with a phone, as mobiles weren’t crossed out on the laminate.

Ingrid Craigie & Gillian HannaOnto the production. I’m not going to outline the story, because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s a constantly surprising and delightfully honest development of the characters. As I mentioned earlier, I am new to the work of Martin McDonagh and it’s a thrill to find out that this play is so exquisitely written. It’s full of subject material that is really located where angels fear to tread but McDonagh’s lightness of touch and incredible ear for the Irish lilt of language makes humour possible in the darkest areas. It’s a gift not dissimilar to Ayckbourn’s, to make you laugh at something savage; the Aran Islands in 1934 were obviously not the most “politically correct” of places, and there is a lot of poking fun and discrimination against “Cripple Billy”. Mind you, all the characters seem to poke fun at and discriminate against everyone, so to an extent Billy is no different from anyone else.

Pat ShorttIt’s also a very exciting and entertaining story with at least two coups de theatre. Just when you think it might become mawkishly sentimental McDonagh surprises you with an amazingly powerful twist. Inishmaan is not a sentimental place. It’s home to serial bullying, disrespectful behaviour and physical violence, so it is. Life is tough, when the threat of TB or a liver eroded by drink is never far away, so it is no surprise that the glamour of Hollywood might become just too tempting a prospect.

Sarah GreeneAnd of course this production is full of great performances. We saw Daniel Radcliffe a few years ago when he was in Equus and there is no doubting his extraordinary stage presence. As Billy he gives a superb performance of a young man with cerebral palsy, but a huge determination to make the best of his life against the odds. Technically his performance is faultless – his acting of his disability is 100% convincing and you sense his understanding of his own character is immense. He’s one of those actors who’s just a joy to watch. Nevertheless, it’s also the terrific ensemble of Irish actors who make this production so successful.

Padraic DelaneyI particularly loved the performances of Ingrid Craigie as the slightly mentally fragile Kate and Gillian Hanna as the no-nonsense Eileen, Billy’s two aunts. They work together so well that you really would believe they are a pair of sisters who have lived together in the backwaters of Ireland all their lives. The lyrical nature of their speech patterns really adds to the humour when they are mocking each other, and to the pathos when they are up to their eyeballs in emotions. They’re both brilliant performances, masterclasses in running the gamut A to Z.

June WatsonThere’s also a superb performance by Pat Shortt as local gossip Johnnypateenmike, convincingly bringing out both the loveable rogue and cruel bully aspects of the character. Sarah Greene is a glamorously dangerous Helen, the prospective sexual light at the end of many a local young man’s tunnel; spitting out her insults with childish glee, she tramples over the feelings of everyone with whom she comes into contact. Even Billy hopes he might have a chance with her, despite her hoots of mocking derision.

Gary LilburnI very much liked Padraic Delaney as the seemingly laid back Babbybobby, owner of the little boateen (there seems to be an “een” on the end of half the words in this play) that can take islanders to the mainland – and beyond. And there’s a wonderful performance from June Watson as Johnnypateenmike’s Mammy; a drunken old sot who ought to be at death’s door with the alcohol she’s consumed but seems to thrive on it, much to her son’s disappointment. Indeed, the whole cast is excellent.

Conor MacNeilYou come away from the play with a sense of real humanity, despite all the dreadful things that get done and said, and a real appreciation for the author’s understanding of his characters and landscape. It got a massive cheer, and not just because Daniel Radcliffe has a sizeable fan base, but because it’s a simply brilliant production. I would definitely count it the most successful of the season so far. Highly recommended.