Review – Hedda Tesman, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 28th September 2019

71483760_244922176426745_4329428812208013312_nHenrik Ibsen is one of those playwrighting gifts that never goes away. He’s currently enjoying a revival which, by my workings-out, has been going on for at least sixty years. The challenge to make him relevant to today, whatever that means, is there if you want to take up the reins, although plenty of excellent Ibsen revivals play them straight, plucked out of the 19th century in all their dark and dismal glory, and they work as well as they ever did. On the other hand, there’s a trend to produce updated versions of our dour Norwegian hero. Only last week Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the excellent revival of Peter Gynt by David Hare at the National, which set him in modern-day Scotland, in a very effective time and place transformation. A couple of years ago the National Theatre toured with a “modern” version of Hedda Gabler adapted by Patrick Marber, which made the purists wince and was, on reflection, probably too clever-clever by half.

HeddaAnd now Cordelia Lynn has also adapted Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s possibly most performed play, featuring his disturbed protagonist fighting for breath in a life where she feels stifled. Where the title of Ibsen’s original stressed her inability to escape from the manipulative hold on her exerted by her late father the General, Ms Lynn’s apparently more conventional title, regarding her as Hedda married to Tesman, emphasises the stress on her from her marriage.

 Hedda Julie and TesmanMany of the changes that have been made to the original work extremely well. This Hedda is a much older woman, one whom you sense is more regretful of the past rather than fearful of the future – more of this later. Thea is no longer her friend but her daughter, which reveals a relationship where Hedda has never truly supported her child. Thea’s infatuation with Elijah brings him more closely into the family circle; perhaps, as a result, the sideline attentions of Judge Brack feel less intimidating or significant in this telling of the story than I have seen in previous versions. Bertha the maid is now a cleaner, employed by an agency; a professional woman on her own right who one feels can dictate her own terms much more positively than a mere servant, which adds just a little extra zest to the household. It’s a very successful repositioning of the play into modern times and does, indeed, retain the relevance of today.

TesmanHowever, as with freedom of speech, with freedom to update comes responsibility. By making these changes, the audience has to suspend its disbelief because modern technology renders quite a number of Ibsen’s structural markers outdated. It’s impossible to imagine, for instance, that when Tesman spent his night on the tiles with Brack and Elijah, and they weren’t going to make it back home, that Tesman wouldn’t have texted either Hedda or Thea to explain. No need for his daughter to wait up all night unnecessarily. Similarly, when Hedda cruelly (there’s no other real justification for this act) destroys Elijah’s original document through fire, it’s ridiculous to expect that he hadn’t already downloaded it onto his laptop; after all, when Thea proposes that she and her father should try to recreate Elijah’s work, the laptop is their first port of call. For me, those two problems make it very hard to accept that the story could happen, in the way it is presented, today.

Thea and ElijahWhilst we’re on the subject of inconsistencies, a couple of things really annoyed me – I think I am definitely turning into a grumpy old man. Thea and Tesman are working hard in the back-room area of the stage with the laptop, trying to re-write Elijah’s words. Tesman enters the living area saying they can’t work out back there because it’s too uncomfortable, with all the boxes around. You look up at the area to see where they have been working; and there are no boxes. Sorry, what? Similarly, at the beginning of the play Bertha starts to vacuum clean the floor. At the end of the play, she takes a mop and bucket to the same floor. Really? Mop and bucket on the carpet?

BrackAs a linguistic aside, this production might be the final hammer blow that makes the C word virtually acceptable – or pointless, your choice. Hedda uses it twice in the same speech and it has the extraordinary effect of drastically reducing both its meaning and its impact. I don’t think that was the intention; I think the intention was to shock, and to show how vicious Hedda is towards her own daughter. But, strangely, Hedda’s sentiments would have had much greater impact without using that word.

Hedda Get Your GunThat said, Haydn Gwynne is superb as Hedda; a tired, defeated, misunderstood figure, suffocated by the good intentions of her husband, and jealous of the freedoms and achievements of the younger generation. Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a Hedda whom I thought was less likely to take her own life. There’s no sense of mental instability; although she may be unhappy with life, she really looks like she has it under control, and, if anything, you’d simply expect her to self-medicate on gin. So when that final, lethal, moment comes, it’s quite a shock, as I had completely forgotten that’s what was going to happen!

JulieI particularly enjoyed Natalie Simpson’s performance as Thea, with her scarcely concealed mixture of contempt and dislike for her mother (learned behaviour, I’m sure) but her wide-eyed appreciation for every step Elijah takes. There’s excellent support from Anthony Calf and Jacqueline Clarke as Tesman and Aunt Julie, and (maybe) slightly underpowered performances from Jonathan Hyde as Brack – who seems to lack relevance in this production – and Irfan Shamji as Elijah. Rebecca Oldfield’s Bertha is a bright spark who cheers up the stage whenever she comes on, bringing her positive, get on with it mood into the oppressive household.

BerthaWe saw the last matinee of its run at Chichester – and I was surprised at how undersubscribed it was. As a co-production with Headlong and The Lowry, the production now moves on to a run at The Lowry from 3 – 19 October. Book now – the inventive changes that have brought it into the 21st century make it definitely worth seeing.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Peter Gynt, Olivier Theatre at the National, 21st September 2019

71596599_924542911248462_4164266991596601344_nI always thought it was a bit unfair that Willy Russell’s Rita was castigated for her “Do it on the radio” response to the essay about the problems with staging Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. For one thing – she’s reading English Literature, not training to be a director. And secondly, Ibsen was Norwegian the last time I looked, and Peer Gynt was written in Danish too. Personally, I think she nailed it. David Hare’s response to the same question is to bring the play bang up to date, set it in Dunoon (yes, Dunoon; I don’t know why either), and had the job over to the brilliantly inventive team of Jonathan Kent (Director) and Richard Hudson (Designer). Simples.

Gynt in the skyI’ve had a copy of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt languishing in my drama bookshelf since 1978 and never really had the motivation to open its pages – till now, that is. Whilst watching this new production I just got the sense that it was probably a pinpoint-accurate updating of the 150-year-old classic. So when I got home I speed-read the origina, and, guess what – I was right. The structure of Ibsen’s original play firmly (but fairly) frames Hare’s new work. Ibsen’s five acts have become a more manageable three acts under Hare – Ibsen’s first three acts become Hare’s first act, then Act Four becomes Act Two and Act Five becomes Act Three, if you get my drift. Yes, there are two intervals. You’re in this for the long haul. The bar does very good business.

Wedding PartyBut it’s not just the structure that bridges the 150 year gap. Peer (now Peter) still makes up stories that make his mother Åse (now Agatha) fume. He still leaves his mother on the roof, he still storms Ingrid’s wedding, she still refuses to come out of the bedroom until he whisks her away, has his wicked way (we presume) and dumps her. He still perplexes Mads Moen (now Spudface) with stories of his Invisibility Cloak (hands up who assumed J K Rowling thought of that first?) He still encounters the Woman in Green, the Trolls, the Boyg; he still gets robbed in North Africa (although in a much more 21st century way); he still appears as a prophet to Anitra, he still gets swept up in Begriffenfeldt’s asylum, he is still stopped in his tracks by The Button Moulder; he still breaks Solveig’s (now Sabine’s) heart. It’s an extraordinary feat of transposing the same sequence of 19th century folkloric events into 21st century Scotland.

Dining with the TrollsGynt’s picaresque journey through life is a constant delight. No matter how much of a liar or a cad he is, you’re always on his side – although you’re also quite happy to see him deservedly suffer every so often. His constant search for pleasure – whether it be sexual, financial, influential, or whatever – gets him into endless scrapes which provide episodic entertainment that build up to create a full life but a meaningless one. But there’s always a final reckoning; and it’s in Sabine’s arms and heart that he realises where his place was all along. Sometimes a play ends on a note of uncertainty, leaving the audience to come to their own conclusions. Not in this case. Ibsen/Hare make the purpose of Gynt’s journey perfectly clear.

Gynt as the ProphetIt’s worth pointing out, in case you were expecting something po-faced and worthy, that Hare has taken the lively and rather insolent nature of Ibsen’s original text and created a very funny play, choc-full of modern references and terrific characterisations. This is not the doom-laden Ibsen of Hedda Gabler and Ghosts, but a much younger man’s play; in fact, it reminded me of the unexpected comedy of the young Chekhov’s Platonov – although that might have been because I saw James McArdle in that role too – more of him later.

SabineThe vast Olivier stage is the perfect venue for this wide-ranging, high-level imagination play. At the beginning, blue sky and clouds are projected over a back wall of doors and one opens to reveal Peter Gynt, his head already in the clouds before he even starts speaking; a visual nod to the surrealism of Magritte, an unexpected flight of stairs bringing him down to the real world, as though the play was starting with a deus ex machina rather than ending with one. Stage right, a grassy bank with a few surprise traps where a head can bob up (or, indeed, an onion); stage left, a black void that can be usefully transformed into the Hall of the Mountain King, a desert oasis or a wedding party. For the fifth act, storm projections create a magnificent effect of a ship at sea. For three-and-a-quarter hours (maybe more) the show’s visuals create a highly dramatic impact on your brain, and in many cases it’s the visual tableaux that you remember most in the days that follow.

Old GyntThere were three reasons why I particularly wanted to see this production. 1) I’ve never actually seen Peer Gynt before (don’t judge me). 2) I’ve long been an admirer of David Hare and even on those rare occasions where he does put a foot wrong it’s always a brave and fascinating foot. 3) James McArdle. He’s one of our most arresting actors and I don’t know why he isn’t better known. He was a brilliant ingénu Alexey in A Month in the Country and a hilarious lead in Platonov. I understand he was amazing in Angels in America, but sadly we didn’t see that. He has, however, matured into a first-class leading actor and he’s barely off stage for the whole of the show, giving us a devastatingly brilliant performance of a lovable rogue, with all his sarcasms, flights of fancy, dejections and everything else that Ibsen and Hare throw at their hero. A truly outstanding performance.

Death of AgathaAnn Louise Ross does a great job of conveying Agatha’s fighting spirit and her love of her son with her complete fury at his lies and his folly. There are a few other featured roles, but the nature of the play is that the rest of the cast form an ensemble that populate Gynt’s life and times whether it be in Dunoon, North Africa or somewhere lurking in the Hall of the Mountain King. Tamsin Carroll is both bewitching and alarming as the Woman in Green and Anitra, Jonathan Coy gives great bluster as Bertram and alarming sincerity as Begriffenfeldt, Anya Chalotra plays Sabine with a terrific blend of feistiness and calm resignation, and Oliver Ford Davies is perfect casting as the authoritative but reasonable Button Moulder. Amongst the minor roles Lorne MacFadyen as Duncan, Ezra Faroque Khan as the Captain and Guy Henry as Ballon and the Weird Passenger give great support. But everyone throws their heart and soul into creating a very impressive theatrical experience.

It’s running at the National Theatre just until 8th October. Glad I caught it before it closed! You should too!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Ghosts, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd April 2019

GhostsThey say you never forget the teacher who influenced you the most. I was lucky enough to have two. John Steane and Bruce Ritchie, both of whom taught me English literature through O levels, to A levels, to Oxbridge. Sadly, neither of them is with us anymore, but both were inspirational; Bruce was the man for anything 20th century and his passion for Pinter and Stoppard was out of this world. John was the go-to for anything 19th century and earlier; Shakespeare, Marlowe (he edited the Penguin edition), Restoration Comedy, Sheridan – and Ibsen. Yes, it wasn’t all laughs in his lessons (well, actually, it was.) But it was after reading Ghosts in his class that I went out and bought all Ibsen’s plays in various paperbacks. It was also the first time I came across the notion of theatre censorship, which has continued to fascinate me all my life. And that little lad at school was determined that one day he’d see Ghosts on stage.

Manders in chargeWho knew that would take the best part of forty-five years to achieve?! But Lucy Bailey’s new production, adapted by Mike Poulton, in the intimate delights of the Royal Theatre in Northampton is definitely worth waiting for. In brief: the late Captain Alving appeared to be a Pillar of the Community (to use another Ibsen title) but in fact was a philanderer and a scoundrel. His wife Helen briefly left him but was talked into taking him back by their friend Pastor Manders, who convinced her that it was simply The Right Thing to Do. When prodigal son Oswald returns home from his life as an artist in the capitals of Europe, it’s revealed that he is suffering from syphilis that he has inherited from his father, so the truth about Alving’s womanising has to come out. Also awkward – he’s falling in love with Helen’s housekeeper Regina, who, it emerges, is his half-sister. The ghosts of the past come back to haunt the present, and the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. It comes as no surprise that this is not a play with a happy ending; although Ibsen keeps its final resolution deliberately obscure.

Regina Engstrand and MandersWhen you enter the auditorium, you’re instantly struck by the sound of rain. Torrential rain. It’s been raining for days in Rosenvald. Characters arrive and moan about the rain (even if, occasionally, the actors seem to be bone dry – slightly odd I thought). But, in the words of Elkie Brooks, there is always Sunshine after the Rain, and that’s what the physically and mentally devastated Oswald yearns for – the sun. As the stage slowly begins to fill with light at the end of the play, the sun represents the morphia that Oswald begs his mother to administer, which will finally put his mind and body at rest. For most of us, a new dawn would be cause for optimism. Perhaps it is for Oswald too. It’s a heavy symbolism, but then you don’t go to Ibsen for a drawing-room comedy.

Helen and MandersMike Britton’s gloomy set is suitably dour for this comfortable, respectable yet austere household, with a relatively small acting space out front, and a partly-hidden dining room behind, where maids sit and sew and a drunken Oswald gets rowdy-rowdy with Regina. I’m guessing this was deliberately done to make the back room feel further away, but I found myself strangely irritated by the circuitous route that the actors had to make from the back, going around the table the long way in order to get to the front room – it just seemed unnecessarily artificial. I did, however, very much enjoy the change to the set between Acts Two and Three, when the orphanage is burning down. The set swivels by, I’d guess, about 20° to the left, so that the suggestion of flames and ash comes pouring onto the stage; all very effective.

Helen with ghostsPenny Downie gives an impressive performance as Mrs Alving; at first, comfortable in her position in the household, in charge of business deals to the best of her ability, authoritative with Regina, motherly with Oswald, and treading the difficult line of assertive and malleable in her dealings with Manders. As the “ghosts” begin to return, you can see her world beginning to fall apart, and Ms Downie portrays Helen’s increasing desperation and sadness to delicious effect. As her unfortunate son Oswald, Pierro Niel-Mee convincingly shows us the character’s decline, from his robust defence of his beliefs, through alcohol dependence and the hopeless dalliance with Regina, into both physical and mental torture.

ReginaDeclan Conlon’s Engstrand is a disreputable rogue, who spins a convincing yarn about his seamen’s mission; his performance is such that you can never quite decide on Engstrand’s level of honesty – which nicely adds to the murkier aspects of the plot. Eleanor McLoughlin’s Regina is a picture of well-maintained respectability and knowing her place until the truth of her parentage is revealed – and then the worm turns with acute pain and fury.

MandersBut it is James Wilby’s performance as Pastor Manders that you remember the most. A perfect portrayal of utter bigotry, a control freak who intimidates all those who come into his orbit into submission to his will, a weasel who’ll allow others to take the blame for his own mistakes, simply to preserve his own reputation. Ibsen created a repulsively believable hypocrite in Manders, and Mr Wilby gets that mix of bullying and wheedling perfectly. Some of his comments are so outrageous, within the context of Victorian decency, that the audience is propelled into unsettled, anxious laughter. A great performance.

Helen and OswaldDisgusting, said the commentators at the time. “An open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly, a lazar-house with all its doors and windows open” (Daily Telegraph). With critical notices like that, who needs enemies? As always, through the passage of time, the play’s true value and significance is now understood, and this production does it complete justice. It’s only on until 11th May, so you don’t have long to catch it, but you really should.

Production photos by Sheila Burnett