Review – Middle, National Theatre, Dorfman Theatre, London, 28th May 2022

MiddleWe didn’t see David Eldridge’s Beginning, the first of his trilogy of love and relationships, that premiered at the National Theatre in 2017. Whether this put us at a disadvantage for seeing Middle, the second in the trilogy, I don’t know. Presumably there’ll be an End too, but that’s a post for a different day.

Rushbrook and RyanMiddle is a two-hander set in a modern luxury kitchen diner. Maggie and Gary have been together for sixteen years now; he works hard in a job he hates but has a great income, which allowed them to buy this six-bedroomed home. She also works hard at a job that is a disappointment to her. They have a daughter, Annabelle, whom he indulges and she disciplines, which is a cause of conflict. When he’s not at work, he’s having a few drinks at the pub, or watching West Ham. She’s very lonely, and he hasn’t got a clue. And the play starts with Maggie telling Gary that she doesn’t love him anymore.

Daniel Ryan and Claire RushbrookIt’s the middle of the night (middle again) and she can’t sleep. Apparently, she hasn’t slept properly in ages. She gets up to make a cup of warm milk. He, realising she’s up, gets up to nip to the loo and then comes downstairs to see if she’s ok. They’re very concerned not to disturb Annabelle. A hundred or so minutes later, their life together has been thoroughly explored, secrets revealed, and dreams shattered.

Ryan and RushbrookDespite some moments of humour – and some of them are shockingly funny – this comes across as an extremely sad play. Neither of them has the remotest wish to hurt the other, but they do. And there appears to be nothing that either of them can do to save the situation. It feels bleak and hopeless. And even though there is a resolution of sorts at the end – well, I didn’t believe anything was going to change. The writing, and Polly Findlay’s direction, are intense, moody and dark. The bitterness of their situation creates a stark contrast to the modern comfort that surrounds them. Annabelle’s playbox particularly stands out as a symbol of the brightness and happiness that should be present, but is only a façade.

Claire RushbrookClaire Rushbrook is excellent as Maggie, a brooding, discontented presence who’s more sad than angry, trying to explain her position to her husband who gave up listening long ago. She drifts uncertainly from room to room, unable to focus on the future or the present, and resentful of much of the past. Gary is normally played by Daniel Ryan, but for our performance his understudy Mark Middleton took the role; I don’t know how much notice he had, but it’s a huge part – Gary is never off stage – and he did a terrific job. He played Gary as a rather whiny chap of few needs and simple pleasures; taking his wife for granted but genuinely wanting to put things right when his failures have been exposed.

Daniel RyanMaggie maintains throughout that the first five years of their relationship was great; they had fun, they were successful, they did everything they wanted, and life was perfect together. Therefore I found it hard to believe that when she does her big confession to Gary about her disappointment in not getting her dream job, and her resentment against the friend who did, that she hadn’t told him that before. They had a great relationship. She would have told him. He would have empathised and supported her. This doesn’t feel believable to me.

Claire Rushbrook and Daniel RyanMrs Chrisparkle, on the other hand, didn’t believe that the character of Gary, with everything we know about him, could hold down for so many years the city job that brings in big bucks. She can’t see how he would have cut the mustard over that time. My other slight problem with the play is that I could never quite get a grasp of its purpose. It’s a slice of life, certainly, and depicts the kind of relationship problems that could beset anyone in the middle period of their lives together. But I’m not sure how it sheds light for others. I found it a very negative experience, very downbeat, and (dare I say it) self-indulgently sad. Happy to accept that I’m probably in the minority here. Middle continues at the Dorfman until 18th June.

Production photos by Johan Persson

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – The Corn is Green, National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, London, 27th May 2022

The Corn is GreenEmlyn Williams wrote the first play I ever saw at the theatre – I was six, on my own, in the front row for the local amateur dramatics group’ production of A Murder Has Been Arranged at the Wendover Memorial Hall. I was entranced, and a lifelong love of theatre was born. Imagine a six-year-old being out on their own to see a play nowadays – you’d call in Social Services at once! Things were different in the old days. Thirty years or so later I became friends with a chap who had acted with Emlyn Williams when he was a callow youth, and Williams was a big star. He was very proud of his albeit slight association with Williams, and, remembering that he had written the first play I ever saw, I also felt a strange sort of connection.

Nicola WalkerSince then, I have seen a production of Williams’ most famous play, Night Must Fall, but never The Corn is Green; and it was never on my radar as a play I should catch up with, until I saw that the National Theatre were mounting a production with Nicola Walker in the lead role. Being a huge admirer of Ms Walker’s TV career, I jumped at the chance. That was sometime in early 2020, and – well, you know the rest. Now that the worst of the pandemic is passed  (fingers crossed at least) I was thrilled to secure myself some tickets for its delayed performance. They say that good things are worth waiting for; this certainly proves that rule.

Nicola Walker and Iwan DaviesThe premise of the play is pretty simple. Miss Moffat arrives at a remote Welsh village with the intention of setting up a school, so that all the local lads have an alternative to a life down the coal pits. She wants them to be able to appreciate books, to extend their minds; to give them a fuller, more rounded understanding of what life has to offer. Despite opposition, she succeeds; and her first promising pupil is young Morgan Evans, whom she encourages, and develops to such an extent that she arranges for him to sit for a scholarship to Oxford. But can a boy who’s been bred to work down the mines leave behind the dismal future that he has always been expected to follow and break out into a middle-class world of learning and self-expression?

Iwan DaviesIt’s a semi-autobiographical play, and in the original production Williams played Evans; the character of Miss Moffat was based on his own teacher, Miss Cooke. And in a fascinating new twist to the play, director Dominic Cooke (no relation I presume!) has made Williams a key player on the stage. Not only does this production provide us with a performance of The Corn is Green, it also shows Williams going through the creative process, sometimes steering the production, sometimes discovering that it steers him. It’s a masterstroke of an idea and works incredibly well.

Williams at a partyThe play begins, for example, not with the house that Miss Moffat has inherited and will make into the school, but with a society ball, maybe in London, maybe in Oxford, where smart young things dance to the latest craze until the young Emlyn Williams bursts out of the proceedings, a sweaty, anxious mess, and decides to sit down at a typewriter and put his initial thoughts onto paper. As the play develops, Williams takes on the dual role of writer/director, deciding, for example, whether a character would speak in English or Welsh, whether they would enter the stage now or later, or whether the plot would twist this way or that. At one point Williams stops the show and makes the characters retrace their steps and do it differently – it reminded me of Laura Wade’s excellent The Watsons, where a character takes charge and shakes the rest of the cast into performing a different play. This extra dimension to the production allows Dominic Cooke to bring in a chorus of miners, all grubby faces and golden voices, that serve as a constant reminder of the world outside the schoolroom, never allowing Evans to forget his roots. There is also all the fun of the radio studio, with squeaking door sound effects, and actors never actually leaving the stage, just turning their back on the action. There’s a lot of façade going on, but it works a treat.

Teacher Nicola WalkerThe presence of Williams also serves as a bridge between the Welsh backwaters and the smart young society things, capturing both the grit and the glamour. The humour of the story is beautifully observed, with a harsh lack of sentimentality between the characters, a dismissive reaction to parental obligations, and a delightful obsequiousness towards The Squire, the local authority figure with whom everyone wants to ingratiate themselves – and he certainly expects it. As an outsider, Miss Moffat wants none of that; but the scene where she deliberately fawns to him and flatters him, setting herself up as a mere woman who needs the strength and guidance of a capable man, is comedy gold.

Miners ChoirI had high expectations of Nicola Walker as Miss Moffat and they were achieved in abundance. She has the most remarkably expressive face; no need for speech, but within a space of ten seconds she can show a sequence of emotions that follow naturally on from each other, going from, say, surprise to disappointment, then knowing she shouldn’t have been surprised, to seeing the funny side and then the tragic side. Basically, she can do anything! Her Miss Moffat is wonderfully no-nonsense and ruthlessly determined. At one stage she is so fixated on Evans’ Oxford career, she reminded me of that terrifying moment in Gypsy where Imelda Staunton broke into Everything’s Coming Up Roses not for the achievement of her prodigy but for her own overweening success. But Miss Moffat is also supremely altruistic – the sacrifice she is prepared to make at the end of the play is something quite extraordinary.

Saffron CoomberGareth David-Lloyd is excellent as the ever-present Emlyn Williams, a class apart from everyone else, attempting to take charge of his characters and plot, even when his characters have other ideas. I loved Alice Orr-Ewing as the shallow Miss Ronberry, fluttering for the attention of the Squire, repelled by the baser actions of the boys. Iwan Davies is also excellent as Evans, at first cheeky and one-of-the-lads, later a serious student who wants to do well; but he wants it to be on his own terms. Saffron Coomber is superb as Bessie Watty, desperate for a glamorous life away from the humdrum of rural Wales, and there’s great support from Richard Lynch as the lugubrious, saved, Jones. Jo McInnes as the hard-working and totally unmotherly Mrs Watty, and the marvellous pomposity of Rufus Wright’s Squire.

A kissI wasn’t sure about the final image of the scene; I understand that Williams was bisexual and had a number of liaisons with men during his marriage and after his wife died, but I still didn’t really see the relevance of his ending the show with a romantic dance with Evans. A small quibble though. This is a very clever and revealing production that breathes new life into a well-known, traditional play; and Nicola Walker is absolutely fabulous. It continues at the Lyttelton just until 11th June, so you’d better get your skates on.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Father and the Assassin, National Theatre, Olivier Theatre, London, 26th May 2022

The Father and the AssassinWithin a minute of the start of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s magnificent The Father and the Assassin, Gandhi’s murderer, Nathuram Godse, has already mocked us all for only knowing about him through “that fawning Attenborough film. With Sir Ben Kingsley”. The scorn fairly drips from his lips, but we forgive him, because we are already spellbound by this cheeky chirpy chap who addresses us as though he’s Live at the Apollo, and we’re all out to have some fun. How can it be that we so easily fall for his charm and humour, this man who sets out to kill Gandhi; the Father of India, the model of humanity, the architect of non-violent protest?

Paul Bazely and Shubham SarafSurely he’s a ruthless ogre, a tyrannical terrorist, a monster in human form? No. He’s just little Nathuram Godse, born to a Brahmin family who made him grow up as a girl because they were terrified that all the boys in the family die due to some ridiculous curse. With such an artificial start to life, no one could blame him for feeling like a fish out of water, at odds with the world. He runs away to hear his childhood hero Gandhi address a crowd; and when the nine-year-old Godse can’t pretend to be a girl anymore, who is there to dress him like a boy in a kurta pyjama and thus allow him to start his life over again? None other than the great man himself. Chandrasekhar blurs so many lines with her depiction of Godse that you cannot but admire him, and appreciate his complicated and conflicting emotions, even though we know, and he knows we know, that he’s a murderer.

Sagar AryaNever off stage, Godse takes us through his childhood, and his relationship with his parents, through to his apprenticeship to the tailor Kishore, his introduction to nationalist agitator Vinayak Savarkar and espousal of his beliefs, the discussions and agreements that led to partition, and the perception that Gandhi is to blame. We see the assassination, and the arrests of Godse and his friend Apte. But as Godse avows to the audience at the end, “it’s better to be a Godse than a Gandhi… A Gandhi is of no use to you when tomorrow’s battles are fought with deadlier weapons. No, you’ll need a Godse. And I will rise.”

The CompanyRajha Shakiry’s simple but impressive set design is a backdrop of threads; tightly woven at one end representing a cohesive piece of material, separated at the other end to reveal the individual cotton threads that lack the skilled craftsman to make cloth. Gandhi, of course, famously spun cotton; is he the master who can make a whole from the disparate threads of the Indian subcontinent, or is he the reason the country is randomly picked apart, resulting in the personal and national horrors of partition?

Nadeem Islam and Shubham SarafA great set, costumes, lighting and so on; but the real strength of this production is that enchanted theatre environment where inspired writing and superb performance meet. Shubham Saraf is simply mind-blowing as Godse; his is a performance of enormous wit, charm, humour and intelligence. The essential challenge of the play, to win the audience onto the side of the murderer, is achieved right from the start with Mr Saraf’s masterful delivery and hugely likeable characterisation. His light-hearted attitude makes the perfect contrast with Paul Bazely’s serious Gandhi, who takes control of his scenes with a measured calmness that gives you an instant insight into the man’s charisma, and is another brilliant characterisation.

Ayesha DharkerTony Jayawardena and Ayesha Dharker are superb as Godse’s parents, fussing and protecting and trying to lay down the law as good Indian parents always do. I really enjoyed the portrayal of Jinnah by Irvine Iqbal, wiping out the memory from “that fawning Attenborough film” that Jinnah was the outright bad guy, representing him in a much more reasonable light. There’s excellent support from Ankur Bahl as the petulant tailor Kishore, and as his childhood friend Madhav; and from Dinita Gohil as his friend Vimala, who constantly returns to interrupt Godse’s narrative, questioning his beliefs and attitudes, much to his annoyance.

Dinita GohilThere are great performances also from Sagar Arya as the severe and ruthless Savarkar, encouraging unrest from Godse, and a scene-stealing turn from Nadeem Islam as Mithun, the school watchman, who tries to influence young Godse but is let down by him. But the entire cast work together extremely well and tell this beautifully written story with conviction, humour and tremendous heart.

Marc ElliotThis is one of those rare, delightful productions that you know is going to be fantastic right from the very start. The two and half hours fly by, without a duff scene or a wasted word, piecing together the jigsaw puzzle that unites Godse and Gandhi in an attempt to justify the assassination. Of course, the audience will be the judge of that. And there are one or two references that sneak in, regarding life in Britain today; some things just never change. I was riveted throughout. And with Mr Shubham Saraf, a star is most definitely born! The play continues at the Olivier Theatre until 18th June, but I’m sure it won’t be the last we see of this modern classic.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Normal Heart, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre London, 14th October 2021

The Normal HeartTwo well-observed ceremonies open Dominic Cooke’s riveting production of Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical  The Normal Heart at the Olivier. First, the cast come on stage in reverent silence as a flame is lit in memory of those who died, those who suffered, and those who lost; but also as an eternal hope for the future – and it burns throughout the entire performance. Second, the scene changes to a thumping gay nightclub where Donna Summer’s I Feel Love dominates the stage as the clubbers throw themselves into a vibrant tableau of sheer, carefree enjoyment where shirts are optional. The first couldn’t be more different from the second. The production instantly invites us to be judgmental; it’s in those clubs, and in the promiscuity that they enable, it implies, that the whole AIDS crisis started. In fact, I blame Donna Summer. If she hadn’t had created such an appealing dance track, all this death and destruction could have been avoided.

Dino Fetscher and Ben DanielsI jest of course; but this is no jesting matter. The Normal Heart takes us on an intense journey from the first days of otherwise healthy young gay men showing unusual symptoms of infections and cancer, through growing awareness that there seems to be an inexplicable “gay plague” causing havoc, resistance from a homophobic establishment to investigate it, finally to gruesome deaths in the close-knit gay community and beyond. Between 1981 and 1984, the years covered by the play, the annual number of AIDS related death in the US went up from 130 to 3,500. Global numbers would continue to rise every year until they reached a peak of 1.9 million in 2004 before they would slowly start to fall. Of course, that was all in the future for the original production of The Normal Heart which opened on Broadway in 1985. To its first audiences, this must have been like a snapshot of the time, just dipping a toe into the vague and confusing world of the mysterious virus which was still perplexing scientists – at least, those prepared to spend time investigating it.

Liz CarrToday we have the benefit of almost forty additional years of understanding; and it’s almost impossible to watch this play without making comparisons (most of which are unfair, but we’re only human) with the Coronavirus pandemic. Given how rapidly vaccines have been developed to combat Covid, there’s a stark contrast with the (lack of) gravity that met the early days of HIV. There’s a stunningly impactful scene where Dr Emma Brookner, the only medic/scientist taking this new condition seriously, has her application for research funding rejected on grounds of its being “unfocused”. Of course it was unfocused. They didn’t know what was causing it!

Ben Daniels and Dino FetscherThere are two main threads that combine to create the powerful content of the play. One is the simple (and very effective) storytelling of the progress of the virus and the birth of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organisation that was set up by Ned Weeks (Larry Kramer in real life) in an effort to raise awareness of the condition and to try to find a way to fight it. The other is the growing relationship between Ned and influential journalist Felix, and Felix’s gradual decline in health as he too falls foul of the virus. Thus you have at the same time both a broad picture of the effect of HIV on a whole community, and also a close-up view of how it effects two individuals; two amongst many, of course. Like all diseases and illnesses, the bottom line is the fear that grips ordinary people facing an extraordinary death, and this play conveys that fear superbly (and tragically) well.

Liz Carr and Ben DanielsBut this is a complex play which also raises other themes and questions. I liked how the play explored the problems and the feelings when an individual starts a pressure group (or a company, or a resolution, or anything similar) and then for whatever reason is voted out and excluded from its future, as happens to Ned. The play also shows how humans are reticent to take action to save themselves because that very action is, in itself, undesirable. Dr Brookner implores Ned to influence gay men into abstaining from sex because she’s convinced it’s the only way of ensuring they stay alive. Unsurprisingly, as an option, this was always going to go down like the legendary lead balloon. Compare this with the actions that some activists are suggesting today are the right way to deal with climate change. We know that it’s something that must be dealt with, but none of us actively and individually wants to do those self-denying things. Basically, people never know what’s best for them.

Robert BowmanVicki Mortimer’s almost empty set is the perfect blank canvas to paint our own imagination of all the different locations in the play; in fact, the lack of scenery is a strength that concentrates our minds on the words, the actions, and the immense performances of the incredibly good cast. Central to all the proceedings is a superb performance by Ben Daniels as Ned; a strong, determined character, full of passion for his cause although initially less certain about his own private passions. Angry at injustice, he portrays brilliantly that ability to pick the wrong fights and create division where unity is needed – he explodes against his brother (an excellent performance by Robert Bowman) for his perceived lack of support, against the mayor’s representative Hiram with whom he should be ingratiating himself, even against the one person who fearlessly and single-handedly does her best to get to the heart of the problem, Dr Brookner. It’s a stunning performance.

Elander MooreDino Fetscher is also superb as Felix, the journalist that Ned courts for publicity for his cause and ends up courting him back for a relationship. As Felix slowly gets consumed by HIV, Mr Fetscher’s strong performance conveys his fear and desperation, as well as his physical decline, but never loses his mental clarity and determination. In another memorable scene, Messrs Daniels and Fetscher perform together supremely well as they both lose control with angry frustration, ending with Ned hurling on the ground all the nutritional food that he has carefully bought to nurse Felix back to health, because Felix cannot bring himself to eat. The combined desperation, sadness and fury with which both characters deliberately wound each other is painful but incredibly telling to watch.

Danny Lee Wynter and Luke NorrisLiz Carr is tremendous as Dr Brookner, delivering her medical advice with unsentimental directness, determined to work all hours of the day and night in an attempt to save life – and not caring what raw emotions she treads on to get there. Luke Norris is great as the closeted Bruce Niles, treading a fine line between giving the cause all the support he can without nailing his colours completely to the mast. There are excellent supporting performances from Daniel Monks as committee member Mickey Marcus, scared for what repercussions his activism will have on his job, and Danny Lee Wynter as the always cheerful, always hard-working Tommy Boatwright.

Daniel MonksRarely have I heard so many barely-suppressed snuffles of crying from audience members as in the last five minutes of The Normal Heart (maybe Blood Brothers comes close). The standing ovation (from a midweek matinee audience) was instant and virtually unanimous, and recognised the awful truth of the AIDS crisis which deprived so many young people of their older years, so many partners of their loved ones, and all of us of so many creative talents and much-loved performers over the years. It’s a long play – it’s advertised as two hours forty minutes, but our performance lasted pretty much three hours – but it has a lot to say. A remarkable work given an immaculate production and memorable performances. One of those productions where you may come out of it as a different person from the one you went into it. The run at the Olivier is until 6th November – don’t miss it.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Five Alive let theatre thrive!

Review – The Welkin, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 25th January 2020

83684971_178834396801201_5813152937085501440_n“She must look to the Welkin, there is no earthly help for her now”, says the apparently well-to-do Mrs Cary about the wretched child murderer Sally Poppy in Lucy Kirkwood’s gripping and surprisingly humorous new play. The Welkin of the title was the word used to describe the firmament at the time (we’re talking Norfolk/Suffolk border in 1759). Halley’s Comet has just been discovered and is playing havoc with the plethora of folk superstitions and old wives’ tales. Whilst scientists and astronomers are making great steps forward, the women of this parish are fully occupied with their housework, as we see in the stark opening tableau that opens this play. Each of the women inhabits a small lightbox on the stage and is totally consumed by any one of a variety of domestic tasks – and it makes for an arresting start.

ElizabethBut into this – perhaps dull – routine comes the occasional call to become a Matron of a Jury. For some of the women, it’s a welcome relief, a chance for some gossip with the others, or some oneupwomanship in what is clearly a very class-ridden society. For others, it’s a disaster; for example, when is Mary Middleton going to get the chance to pull up her field of leeks before they spoil? And it’s Mrs Luke’s Grand Wash Day, godammit! But for midwife Elizabeth Luke it’s a duty that deep down she knows she must perform, even if she is more personally involved in the case than she’d like to admit. This jury has one, relatively simple, task. There’s no doubt that Sally Poppy killed young Alice Wax – or is there? But is she pregnant, as she contests? If she is, she cannot be hanged because that would mean also taking an innocent life. If she isn’t, then to the gallows with her. It takes twelve good women and true to interrogate her, examine her, and test her, to come up with a believable conclusion. However, finding twelve Matrons without an axe to grind, might be quite a task….

At home with the PoppiesIn one respect, The Welkin provides a fresh approach to that well-known genre, the Courtroom Drama. Fresh because we’re in the jury room, and don’t see the court at all; instead we witness all the deliberations of the jurors and their interaction with the accused. And it all leads up to the inevitable excitement, not of is she guilty but of is she pregnant? In addition to this, the play asks many fascinating and difficult questions about the role of women in society – both in 1759, and by association, today – including whether a woman can ever be trusted as an expert if there is a man around who has the same expertise too. The play also provides a new angle about whether women are ever fully in control of their bodies, or if they require the consent of men, particularly in relation to childbirth. If you come to see the play, I recommend buying the programme as there are a few insightful and informative articles in there which really enhance your appreciation and understanding.

The CastSet and costume designer Bunny Christie together with Lighting Designer Lee Curran have created a grey, colourless, featureless world, a sterile environment of plain sheets and workaday uniforms, bare walls and comfortless surroundings. The harsh lighting that encloses the boxed staging is stark and relentless, and creates something of a deliberate barrier between the characters and the audience. There’s a scene – in fact, a very funny one – where a disembodied voice from the back of the theatre invites all the Matrons to present themselves into the light, kiss the Bible and tell us a bit about themselves; this helps us enormously to understand who we’re dealing with. It’s almost as though our 18th century jurors meet A Chorus Line’s Zach for an audition. But Lucy Kirkwood likes to play with our imagination, and create modern links to the Georgian setting, most noticeably when the women all join together to sing, very hauntingly, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. Normally, such an obvious anachronism would have me snorting with derision, but somehow, strangely, it works.

Telling Coombes what forIt’s a cracking ensemble piece with all the actors delivering some great performances that really get under your skin. Maxine Peake is hugely watchable as the openminded Elizabeth Luke, the only juror who seems willing to give the accused a fair hearing, much to the ridicule of some of the other Matrons. Ria Zmitrowicz’s cheeky but vicious Sally is a tremendous creation, denying the Matrons any sense of gratitude for having her life saved, confronting both weak and strong with her aggressive resentment and challenging behaviour. The always reliable Haydn Gwynne is excellent as the haughty Charlotte Cary, her frosty disdain of the scum Sally exuding from her fingertips – at least until her own secrets are revealed.

Emma and CharlotteI also appreciated the performances of Jenny Galloway and June Watson as the two older ladies, Judith Brewer and Sarah Smith. There’s a nicely underplayed running joke about Judith always feeling hot and wanting the windows open without ever having to say the word menopause, and there’s a delightfully ridiculous scene where they let blood from her toe to relieve her symptoms. At our performance, the role of Emma was played by Daneka Etchells and she encapsulated the character’s snide social climbing aspect beautifully. But the whole cast pull out all the stops to create a superb ensemble performance, and it’s great to see a play that’s so packed with strong female characters for a change.

Is she pregnantIn the end, revenge is a dish best served by proxy, and the Welkin doesn’t come to Sally’s aid – in fact, quite the reverse. But there is a form of natural justice in the end – albeit rough. At just under three hours the play is probably just a tad too long – I felt the last twenty minutes or so, even though they’re full of content, could have been a little snappier. Nevertheless, the play holds your concentration throughout and offers the potential for a massive amount of post-show discussion on the way home. We were both pretty impressed. It’s currently on at the National until 23rd May, and I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Production photos by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Four they’re jolly good fellows!

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 original, 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 – Absolute Hell, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 28th April 2018

Absolute HellRodney Ackland isn’t performed much anymore. The only other time I’ve seen one of his plays was the commercially quite successful Before The Party, revived in 1980 at the Apollo, directed by Tom Conti. But the story of how Absolute Hell came into being is one that intrigued me, so I decided it was one I had to see.

absolutehell_1You may know, gentle reader, that I am very interested in the history of theatre censorship – indeed, in this 50th anniversary year since the abolition of stage censorship, I’ll be writing some blog posts in recognition of this significant event later this summer. Ackland wrote the original play, The Pink Room, in 1952, at a time when the Lord Chamberlain’s control over what was presented on stage was in its hey-day. It’s set in a seedy nightclub in Soho just as the Second World War was ending in Europe, and he wanted to portray all the human life and spirit that six years of war had brought out of people; and now that war was over, the people needed to find a new vent and expression to reflect that freedom.

absolutehell_2Ackland wrote a play that he knew would get a licence – but by all accounts, it wasn’t the play he wanted to write. He wanted his characters people to use liberated, foul language. He wanted them to portray all the sexual freedom they wanted to enjoy, gay and straight, inside and outside relationships, legal and illegal. He wanted to show people getting drunk, not just gently tipsy for comedy purposes but rip-roaring, destructive drunk. You sense there was probably no physical boundaries that Ackland’s characters wouldn’t have breached.

absolutehell_16But it was a flop – produced by his friend Terence Rattigan, who never spoke to him again. Disheartened by the experience, Ackland hardly wrote another thing; but after stage censorship was abolished, he revised the play so that it would reflect more what he had originally intended. And when he was an old man, and down on his uppers, the play was rediscovered by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and finally became a success. A perfect example of a play written at the wrong time, you could say.

absolutehell_9The main problem with the play – and by the sound of it, it’s always been the case, right since 1952 – is that it is just too long. The original word from the National Theatre was to expect a three hour, forty minutes production, and, with the best will in the world, you can’t even concentrate on Hamlet for that long. Forty minutes have been shed between the early previews and opening night, which makes you a) feel extremely grateful and b) wonder what in the way of narrative has been left out; because the other downside to this play is that not a lot happens. That isn’t a strength, like in Beckett, where it would have been so disappointing for Godot to turn up and take everyone down the pub; in Absolute Hell you always feel like it’s going to break into a strong storyline, but it never ends up going down that path.

absolutehell_4Spoiler alert in this paragraph! Four scenes – the opening and closing times at La Vie en Rose club over a period of five weeks – show manageress Christine slowly losing her hold over the club, from an opening position of running a place that everyone loved but didn’t make much money, to a final scene with a structurally unsafe building that has to be closed down. As La Vie en Rose slowly disintegrates, the fortunes of the Labour Party offices over the road thrive – in what might be seen as some rather heavy-handed symbolism; even their constant typing (which of course in real life they wouldn’t have been able to hear) provides an interruption and irritation to the activities of the club – and, indeed, to the audience. Over those five weeks, the hopes and dreams of La Vie en Rosers are shattered. Writer Hugh Marriner’s last ditch attempt to make a movie gets nowhere. His agent Maurice is exposed as a sham. His boyfriend Nigel leaves him for a woman. His mother finds out he’s not as successful as he pretended. His friend Elizabeth discovers a dear friend has died in the Holocaust. And of course, Christine loses her business and the building becomes derelict.

absolutehell_11As a slice of life snapshot of the summer of 1945, it makes fascinating viewing – you really get a feel for that post-war energy and optimism, but only outside of the club. Inside the club, life is claustrophobic and going nowhere. There are black market etiquettes to observe, and self-important people to be pandered to. You sense that any fun they have on the inside is purely ephemeral. The future is on the outside.

absolutehell_12There’s no denying it – this is an unpleasant play. Binkie Beaumont described it as “a libel on the British people” and I see his point. There are few positive characters in it, vastly outweighed by a variety of self-obsessed, cruel, pig-headed people whom you would run a mile to avoid. But who are we to say how any of us would be if we’d lived through the Second World War like these people? An experience like that would take a massive toll on society, and that, I think, is the prime aim of the play – to show fairly desperate lives and without any real judgment against them.

absolutehell_14Unpleasant it may be, but there is a big upside; this is an extraordinarily good production, primarily because of several really superb performances that keep you hanging on to find out what happens to the characters. Charles Edwards inhabits the character of Hugh Marriner down to his tobacco-stained fingertips. The slight stoop he adopts, the rambling, wheedling manner of speech, the petulance, his general impotence and all his other characteristics are all perfectly captured as he wastes his way through life. It’s an incredible performance. Kate Fleetwood is also brilliant as Christine who manages the club, with a perpetual twinkle in her eye at the sight of any remotely desirable man; she has all the attributes of a tough businesswoman apart from the important one of keeping an eye on the till. Welcoming and indeed almost grovelling to those in influence, whilst dismissing anyone who doesn’t fit her own opinion of a good customer, this is another excellent performance.

absolutehell_15Jonathan Slinger gives a superb performance as the arrogant agent Maurice, steeped in his own self-esteem to the belittling of anyone who gets in his way; Joanne David is delightfully charming as the easily duped and surprisingly refined Mrs Marriner; Martins Imhangbe conveys Sam’s desire to learn and expand his horizons in a terrifically enthusiastic performance; Jenny Galloway invests the critic R B Monody with a wonderfully huffy self-importance; and John Sackville gives a tremendous performance of sheer stiff upper lip as Douglas Eden. But it’s a marvellous ensemble cast of thirty-plus who throw everything they have at making these characters come alive. If it hadn’t been so superbly performed, it would have felt like a much, much longer show. An interesting period piece; but, seen once, you’d never want to see it again.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Oslo, Harold Pinter Theatre, 27th December 2017

OsloHere’s another production that’s now closed, so there’s nothing I can say to influence your buying or not buying a ticket. Having booked for the obviously crowd-pleasing Everybody’s Talking About Jamie for the Wednesday matinee, I faced a different challenge for the evening. “What are we going to see?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle. “A play called Oslo,” I replied. “And what’s it about?” “It’s about a treaty between Israel and the PLO”. Silence. “How long is it?” “Err…just under…three hours.” Another silence. “It’s a National Theatre production”, I added hopefully. A third silence. “It’s had good reviews” I added. A fourth silence, finally broken by the plaintive question, “are you sure about this?”

Oslo - complex phone callsThe fact is, I wasn’t sure at all. The prospect of three hours of negotiations between representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Israeli government hosted by Norwegian diplomats in a remote house outside Oslo bears all the signs of early grounds for divorce. Let’s face it, there aren’t going to be many laughs are there?

Oslo - a meeting of mindsBut that’s where you’re wrong, gentle reader, as indeed both of us were. There are loads of laughs. You wouldn’t describe it as a comedy, mind you; it’s a genuinely serious docudrama that takes us through the painstaking procedure of getting the two sides together under one roof to start talking about… well about anything really. That was the initial position that the diplomats took; if they could get individuals who take opposing views on matters of politics and nationalism just to talk about their families, or their fondness for waffles or a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label, that’s got to be a start.

Oslo - Peter Polycarpou in an awkward moment of negotiationsAnd they were right. From such little acorns, as the saying goes… Terje Rød-Larsen, Director of the social research Fafo Institute, and Mona Juul, official at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, go out on a limb and achieve the impossible. The audience follows, spellbound, as we see well-known political figures from both camps inexorably become involved with the talking; the arguments, the postulating, the climbdowns, the idiosyncrasies, the teasing, the jokes… Yes, jokes. Even with such high stakes, it’s fascinating to see how humour can diffuse an awkward situation, and reposition the brain into a more accepting and generous place. Get it wrong, however, and it can have the reverse effect; early in the negotiations Israeli historian and journalist Ron Pundak makes a joke at the expense of Yasser Arafat, and the Palestinian Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie is infuriated. Fortunately for the peace process, Qurie is quite easily distracted by a raspberry waffle.

Oslo - Holst's not going to like itWriter J T Rogers stipulates in his text that the set design should be as uncluttered as possible and should work on our imaginations, so that the gaps between the scenes should be seamless. Designer Michael Yeargen took him at his word and created a very simple set, dominated by a grand pair of doors which can conceal – or reveal – negotiations on the other side. Endless wall panelling continued stage right to suggest the empty expanse of the outside world where various important figures might come and go, but we the audience never look in that direction, only focussing on the centre stage where all the important events occur. Characters also emerged from the auditorium, giving us a slightly unsettling impression of being at the heart of the negotiations. J T Rogers has his two Norwegian diplomats occasionally addressing the audience directly, emphasising that sense of us all being in it together.

Oslo - Mona and Terje together whilst Qurie looks onBecause this play very much relies on the power of the spoken word, it’s vital to have a strong, confident and eloquent cast – and this production had that completely nailed. Central to the action were Lydia Leonard as Mona and Toby Stephens as Larsen and they created a superb double act together. Mr Stephens adopted a convincing Scandinavian accent that didn’t sound too ridiculous and gave a brilliant portrayal of a man who’s comfortable with his own vanity but flexible enough to put things right when they go wrong, such as when the well-meaning housekeeper has prepared roast pork for dinner. Ms Leonard had a wonderful knowing look and a gently calculating air that suggested that she fully knew that deep down she was in charge. Two immaculate performances.

Oslo - Shimon PeresThere was also a very impressive performance by Howard Ward as Johan Jorgen Holst, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, a man who’s not unfamiliar with the best cuts of meat served with the finest of wines, delightfully patronising and complacent until he discovers something he doesn’t like. That’s when he tends to release an uncontrollable string of four-letter words – actually the same four-letter word spoken several times, each time more frenzied than the last. Mr Ward managed to be both intimidatingly dramatic and absolutely hilarious at the same time.

Oslo - Savir has had a fewThe roles of the various negotiators were all immaculately performed and given full characterisation by a very talented team but there were two really stand-out performances. Philip Arditti, as Uri Savir, the Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who is brought in to take the negotiations to a higher level, was both eerily scary and uproariously funny with his snappy delivery of Rogers’ elegant text. I’m still not quite sure how he, and/or the character, got away with that simple but effective impersonation of Arafat. Even more stunning was Peter Polycarpou’s performance as Ahmed Qurie; sinister, serious, intimidating, aggressive, yet a family man who lets down his guard and lets some light in where other angels fear to tread. And loves a waffle.

Oslo - Qurie and SavirEven though the play is set on a fixed date in the past – 1993 – the issues it raises are timeless and whilst there is tension in the Middle East, Oslo will always be relevant. Shortly before we saw the production, Donald Trump’s administration had declared it would regard Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there. Without taking any sides in the matter, watching the play my toes curled at the insensitivity of this decision, as you witness how significant and how symbolic such actions can be. If ever you needed confirmation on how diplomacy needs a light touch, this play brings it into sharp focus.

Oslo - Hassan AsfourIf Oslo hadn’t really worked as a play, because it was too wordy, or too serious, or too undramatic, I’d have classified it as a brave failure, which is something I usually prize way higher than a lazy success anyway. But there’s absolutely no element of failure to it all. It’s ground-breaking in the way it takes what sounds like dull as ditchwater source material and creates such an exciting, suspenseful, revealing and funny play. Huge congratulations all round. You can’t go and see it in London at the moment, but I can’t imagine it will be long before this play finds another life somewhere else. Keep your eyes peeled!

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Review – Saint George and the Dragon, Olivier Theatre at the National, 2nd December 2017

Saint George and the DragonI saw this marketing poster for Saint George and the Dragon whilst I was idly looking at shows coming up in the next National Theatre season and it really tickled my fancy. The out of place, out of era, aforementioned Saint, glumly tucking into a full English at some greasy spoon. Hardly the stuff of legends, is it? But then as George says in the play, he genuinely is a legend.

SGATD1There are loads of excellent ideas in Rory Mullarkey’s play which has just ended its run at the Olivier, but, to be honest, I’d be surprised if it turned up anywhere else again in the future. In ancient days, when Chaucerian meter was all the rage, a Knyghte y-clept George found himself wandering through the green pastures of Merrie England (or was that a couple of hundred years later) and chanced upon an old man and his daughter, both verray parfit villagers forsooth. We meet the other villagers: Crier, Miller, Smith, Butcher, Healer, Driver, Brewer…. can you guess what services each provided the community? Of course, that’s where our surnames come from. So I have no idea why Mr Mullarkey has called the old man Charles and his daughter Elsa. Presumably his other kids Dave and Wayne were at some crusade or other.

SGATD2Elsa is about to be eaten alive by the local ruler, a Dragon (that’s King Dragon to you) so Charles pleads with George to challenge the Dragon to save his daughter’s life. Unfortunately, George hadn’t had much luck with Dragons recently and refused (most ungallantly) Charles’ beseeching to fight the Dragon to save his daughter. But then George looked in Elsa’s eyes and Bingo! It was love at first joust. George fights the Dragon, and, blow me down with a fire-throwing breath, he defeats him. But just as he’s about to enjoy his well deserved courtly nuptuals, he hears the call of the Brotherhood, and he’s off to fight another quest, leaving Elsa to darn her medieval mittens for centuries to come.

SGATD3I don’t think it matters that I’m telling you the plot, because of the reason I mention in the first sentence of my second paragraph. George comes back in Victorian times, and basically the same thing happens again; then he comes back in today’s era… and basically the same thing happens again. Repetitive? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. There’s the nugget of a very clever play in here. The nation needs a knight in shining armour to come and rescue us from the mess we’ve got ourselves into; a character that represents true England – its nobility, its bravery, its courtliness, its generosity of spirit. Against him, the Dragon, who vows to continue his war against George in more subtle, subconscious ways in the future, affecting the minds of the people, encouraging evil and ignobility; selfishness and weakness. You might say the play sticks two fingers up at Brexiteers; I couldn’t possibly comment. At the end of the play George exhorts the townsfolk to join him returning back to the good old days, but, of course, no one wants to go back in time. This is modern England, a land of smartphones and skyscrapers, of Megabowls and watching England lose at football in the pub. You cannot go back.

SGATD4Nice idea. Unfortunately, it’s a very wordy, overlong, and lumpy play. It starts with George’s sub-Anglo-Saxon introduction and, I kid you not, Mrs Chrisparkle had nodded off for forty winks and woken up again before he had finished his opening monologue. There are some excellent moments of comedy, created by the incongruous juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern – rather like that marketing photo on the programme. There’s a very enjoyable scene in the second act where George, who has no clue what football is, finds himself getting absolutely plastered watching an International England match in the pub, and it’s genuinely very funny. George blames England’s poor performance on the fact that the supporters have lost sight of the fact that we are world beaters. Just have belief, and we will win the day. Good luck with that, George.

SGATD5There are some very splendid actors involved in this production who really did put in an awful lot of fine effort. John Heffernan brought great virtue to the role of George, with some lovely comic timing and excellent stage presence. I’d really like to see him in something good. Julian Bleach’s characterisation of the Dragon was very amusing, especially in the first scene as a slimy pantomime villain. Brilliant actors with CV’s as long as your arm, like Gawn Grainger and Jeff Rawle, breathe as much life into the play as possible. And there are some excellent special effects – I loved how the Dragon set fire to his servant Henry’s scroll of Terms and Conditions; although the setting up for the descent of the fiery Dragon’s heads onto the stage, using two wires that slowly came into view, was cumbersome and made the whole thing look very ham-fisted.

SGATD6At 2 hours 50 minutes it has some very long longueurs. My solution – omit a lot of the opening exposition and completely cut out the whole Victorian era episode. It adds nothing to the story and Mr. Mullarkey would still make his patriotic point only far more succinctly. You could probably bring it in at about 2 hours then and it wouldn’t feel anything like as hard going. Overall, it wasn’t too bad; but it wasn’t good either. Faint praise indeed. Can’t win them all!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Hedda Gabler, National Theatre on Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th November 2017

Beware – there are spoilers! But then the play has been around for 126 years now, so it’s hardly going to come as a surprise…

Hedda GablerImagine a hypothetical meeting of all the best directors and producers in the country, all getting together to decide which play they next want to work on. One says I know, let’s do Ibsen, and another says, yes, great idea, what about Hedda Gabler? And everyone goes hurrah! And thus another production of Hedda Gabler takes to the stage, ignoring so many other of Ibsen’s great works that – it seems to me – get staged comparatively rarely. I first encountered the terrifying Ms Gabler (or Mrs Tesman, as Ibsen avoided calling her) in 1977 with the thrilling Ms Janet Suzman in the part. In recent years there was the slightly less than extraordinary Theatre Royal Bath production with Rosamund Pike as Hedda, and also the Royal and Derngate’s very own ex-Artistic Director, Laurie Sansom’s production in 2012, with Emma Hamilton as the arch-manipulative, butter-wouldn’t-melt bitch.

HG1Hedda Gabler, by the way, is Laurie Sansom’s favourite play and he describes the character as a female Hamlet. That’s interesting, because the programme notes for this National Theatre production, directed by Ivo van Hove, include Ibsen’s own preliminary notes for the play – which make fascinating reading and definitely worth buying the programme for that one page alone. One of these notes reads: “Life is not tragic – life is ridiculous – and that cannot be borne.” Not tragic? So much for the female equivalent of Hamlet, then.

HG8So, if you’re going to stage yet another production of Hedda Gabler, at least make it different. And, boy, have they done that! This version has been written by Patrick Marber, so you can guess it will be brought bang up to date, maybe with some sacrifices to the original text, of which purists are unlikely to approve. One look at the set alone tells you you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. If this is Kristiana in 1891, it’s not as we know it. Blank, colourless MDF panels surround the cavernous room; an electronic security system with camera buzzes visitors in and out; Hedda sits in a trendy 1960s style Scandinavian armchair; she uses an industrial stapler as part of her feng shui kit; Brack drinks from a ring-pull can (invented in 1959, according to Mr Wikipedia). Scenes are interrupted by music – uncredited in the programme but you’d swear some of it was Enya – creating a vivid, unsettling mix of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

HG7The lighting plays a significant role in creating tension. The set and lighting were both designed by Jan Versweyveld, obviously to complement each other and it really works. It’s the lighting that in many ways controls the play. A very sudden lighting change starts the performance; darkness ends it. After the interval, and when Hedda pulls back the blinds to let the daylight in, those blank colourless panels slowly take on colour. Pale at first, they grow richer through yellows and golds into redness as Hedda builds up to executing her catastrophic act at the fireplace. The final scene, where Ibsen directs that the room begins in darkness, opens with Brack and Tesman boarding up the window, drilling the boards into place, so the light is blocked out – and with it, all hope.

HG6Then there’s the casting, which in some cases distances itself as far as possible away from Ibsen’s original stage directions. Christine Kavanagh, for instance, who plays Tesman’s Aunt Juliana, looks at least twenty years younger than Ibsen’s suggestion of a 65-year-old woman. Abhin Galeya, as Tesman, doesn’t look a bit like Ibsen’s description of a stoutish man with a round face and fair hair and beard. This is a Hedda where they’ve cut away all the trappings of 19th century convention and performance style to bring it in to sharp modern focus. As an audience member, the juxtaposition of the modern and the traditional compels you to give it your full attention.

HG14It’s vital for a production of Hedda Gabler to have a strong central performance that really makes you understand the character’s motivation. Lizzy Watts’ Hedda is, without doubt, a smooth operator. Not merely the bored young housewife with nothing much to do and already fallen out of love with her husband; no, this Hedda is pathologically cruel, deliberately contrary, gleefully malicious. You can see her eyes widen and her smile break out when she thinks of a brand new way to cause pain and wreak havoc. It’s no coincidence that Hedda’s existence is contained within these four blank walls – you cannot imagine her existing outside them. How on earth would Tasman, or indeed Lovborg, ever imagined that she was a plum candidate for a relationship? Yes, she’s manipulative and no doubt presented well, but I don’t see how she could have held back from inflicting cruelty on even a first date. Fortunately, everything that’s gone before is in another time and place and we don’t have to consider it.

HG13It’s at the moments when Hedda is at her most destructive that Ms Watts shows us how much the character is pleasured by the sensation. Forcing Lovborg into drinking again is her first victory; getting him to take one of her father’s pistols so that he does the right thing is another. Burning his work gives her an inner contentment and satisfaction; hearing of his death damn nearly causes an orgasm. This is a study of someone sexually turned on by evil. When Brack confronts her with his knowledge of her involvement, and she realises that Lovborg’s death was not as poetic as she had hoped, he in turn drips, pours and spews his can of drink on to her (in her sensual, satin nightdress) which reveals itself as spatters of blood, the evidence of her guilt in an homage to Grand Guignol. It’s a gruesome, visceral sight that no one else seems to be aware of; is this Hedda’s brain telling her that she has, finally, gone too far? Or is Brack equally predisposed to making a grotesque gesture? However you interpret it, it’s a truly stunning image.

HG5Abhin Galeya’s Tesman comes across as far from being a dusty academic. He’s much more of a lad, skipping and jumping about in childish delight when he hears a bit of good news; an immature sop who’s no challenge to Hedda’s cunning. When he and Mrs Elvsted are seated, trying to piece together the original notes of Lovborg’s masterwork, it’s no surprise that they’re on the floor in the corner, like two kids playing a game. Adam Best’s Brack is a suitably nasty piece of work, affecting an air of respectability whilst concealing his own agenda; trapping Hedda against the wall, desperate to control the uncontrollable. Richard Pyros, Christine Kavanagh and Annabel Bates all give excellent support as a deeply pathetic Lovborg, a bright and kindly Juliana and a surprisingly feisty Mrs Elvsted. And Madlena Nedeva provides a slavishly dour presence as the maid, Berte; hanging on to her job for grim death by sitting permanently by the door like a grouchy Babooshka.

HG10This is a production that occasionally provokes nervous laughter from the audience at what you might feel are inappropriate times. No more so than the final scene, when Patrick Marber has Tesman slowly approach the lifeless Hedda with the flat response “oh, she’s dead”. Such a ridiculous thing for this great tragedy to end with – but wait, what was that Ibsen note? “Life is not tragic – life is ridiculous”. So, that’s spot on for this approach to the play. It’s a very different interpretation from what the average Ibsen-goer will be used to. The sterile, stylised setting won’t work for everyone, and, if I’m honest, some of the intrusive music really got on my nerves. But, then again, I think it was meant to. Not for the purist, not for the complacent; but definitely for the theatre buff who likes to have their ideas shaken up and turned on their head. After Northampton, the tour continues again from January to March, visiting Glasgow, Wolverhampton, Woking, Nottingham, Newcastle, York, Milton Keynes and Dublin.