Based on Hanif Kureishi’s 1995 novel of the same title, The Black Album takes up residence in the Cottesloe Theatre at the National. It’s a look at a Asian student’s experience of going to university in London in a pre-9/11 world, specifically around the time of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 and the beginnings of the radicalisation of some extreme groups. Originally from Kent, Shahid is torn between the fun student life, complete with affairs with lecturers, that he discovers there and the pressures of his Muslim friends who want him to retreat from the excesses of Western living.
The story has taken on a much more powerful resonance in this post 9/11 world and as such, has the potential to be an incisive examination of British Muslim identity and the pressures it faced at a time of crucial change. And whilst the play does deal with some of these issues, it never really tackles them head on and it sometimes felt like there was a little lack of conviction about the proceedings. There’s never a real sense of just how ominous the direction that the extremists are heading in is and whilst I can’t say that I did not enjoy the play, I just feel like it is a bit of a missed opportunity.
As the student Shahid, Jonathan Bonnici makes an impressive stage debut, initially full of wide-eyed naïveté and enthusiasm for university life, but soon becoming weighed down by the gravity of the choices that he is forced to make. Tanya Franks is good as the lecturer in some horrific nineties threads, but Nitin Jundra was guilty of some excessive hamminess as the brother, and I hope he tones it down before the opening night.
The play is staged quite inventively, with three blank walls having a range of video projections on them to demonstrate the different locations (it looks better than it sounds honest!) but the constant hefting around of the desk by the cast drove me mad by the end. One issue was that the lighting was extremely dark: I could barely see onstage and I was in the fifth row, so I can’t imagine how people further back fared. And the soundtrack, provided by Sister Bliss of Faithless, is quite obstrusively loud at times and sometimes misplaced.
Hopefully some of these issues will have been ironed out by the end of the preview period, as I do think there is a good play in there somewhere.
When the Donmar first announced its West End season, taking residence in the Wyndhams theatre, there was a special offer if you bought tickets for ll four productions at the same time, so incredibly, I’ve had a ticket for Hamlet for over 18 months! Indeed the entire run had been sold out for quite some time before it even opened, such was the draw of Jude Law’s name as Shakespeare’s eponymous Dane.
The weight of expectation must have been huge on Law’s shoulders. Not only was he following a superlatively-received Hamlet at the RSC with David Tennant, there has been a case of somewhat diminishing returns on the Donmar’s experiment, with Madame de Sade in particular disappointing many after Ivanov’s excellent start. So the sound of gleeful knives sharpening was strong, with a lead actor more known for his looks than acting talent these daystaking a lot of flak before he had even started his run. And so how does he do? Well, I was hugely impressed. Many forget he is a classically trained actor, and he appeared in many great films before his failed attempt to break into Hollywood’s leading man category (the Talented Mr Ripley is a personal favourite), and this performance should help to remind people of his talent. He has a great mastery of the text, and so the many uber-famous passages that this play contains seem fresh and new and intensely personalised to Law’s Hamlet. “To be or not to be” in particular is convincingly rendered, against a startling backdrop of falling snow, uncertain at first but increasingly confident, mirroring his own movement along the path of self-discovery throughout the play. His is a very physical performance, there’s a lot of movement as he constantly rages against the situation, and if one were make any criticism, then it would be that there needed to be a touch more vulnerability introduced into the register to better show the torment that means that play last for over three hours, rather than being done with in one swift act of revenge.
Amongst the supporting cast, Penelope Wilton stands out as a truly superb Gertrude. She is quite often onstage without speaking, but her looks are she takes in what is happening around her are simply priceless, and when she does open her mouth, she is more often than not heartbreaking: her line about “you have cleft my heart in twain” was almost worth the entrance fee alone. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Ophelia with a nice subtlety, almost underplaying it too much perhaps, one doesn’t feel her presence quite as much as I thought we would. And Kevin McNally strikes the perfect note as Claudius, brimming with a confident arrogance until Hamlet’s actions start to chip away at his position.
The staging is typically Donmarish (Donmarian?): simple, pared-back and with eye-catching flourishes which do wonders in evoking atmosphere. Here the bare stones of the castle of Elsinore are beautifully enhanced by some superb lighting, switching us from room to room inside the castle with the minimum of effort. The dropping of highly coloured curtains provides drama: a see-through one is used as the hiding place for Polonius, which allows us to see his tragic death all the more clearly, and the aforementioned snowfall is most effective, all the more for it being quite unexpected.
So the Donmar can congratulate themselves on a job well done. Hamlet provides a fitting conclusion to what was quite a daring experiment which has been highly successful in terms of box office with very affordable ticket prices, if not always with its choice of production. As already mentioned, the run is sold out, but returns and day tickets are available and I would make the effort to see it as it is a most accomplished addition to the West End.
My heart sank when I saw the running time for this play: another play at the Royal Court over 3 hours long. After Grasses of a Thousand Colours sucked the life out of my companion (he left after two hours) and numbed my bum unforgivably, I even thought about shifting these tickets to someone else. But upon reflection, I remembered that the playwright, Jez Butterworth, was also responsible for the excellent Parlour Song which I enjoyed hugely at the Almeida earlier this year, and so off I trotted to Sloane Square.
Jerusalem is a new play, a dark comedy, which purports to be a critical look at what it means to be English in these times and specifically explores this issue of identity in rural England. Set on St George’s Day, the central character is a man called George Byron who lives in a caravan, and who has built up a little community of sorts around him, living a life of general hedonism and with little care for traditional ideas of society. However, Byron’s easy life looks to be coming to a halt as the walls start closing in on him: his children, eviction notices and angry fathers are just some of the things he has to face up to.
The banter between the cast is excellently scripted and excellently acted. It is funny, extremely so in places, and the shared comic timing amongst the ensemble was spot on, apart from a few fumbled lines by Mackenzie Crook, but they’ll have been ironed out by the end of the previews. And this, combined with the incredibly authentic looking set, creates a great sense of atmosphere and camaraderie within the group. The humour makes the time fly by, and so there was no clock-watching, at least not for the first two hours.
However, once the more dramatic elements of the story kick in, my mind did start to wander, and I became rather keen for the final curtain to drop. The main problem for me was the unlikeability of the central character of Byron. Mark Rylance is very good and utterly convincing as the Pied Piper-of-sorts, but he is such an irresponsible waster, that I wasn’t sure whether one was meant to sympathise with him or not. Since I did not, then I had no real interest in his plight and so I left the play somewhat dissatisfied.
The play raises some interesting questions about the nature of national identity and what it means to be English, but to be fully engaged with the material, one has to connect more with the central character underpinning the whole show, and so for me, it was ultimately a little disappointing, despite the rich vein of humour running through it. And although I didn’t really notice the length of the play for the most part, I consider 3 hours and 20 minutes is still too long when the majority of that time is spent on comedic banter, which whilst entertaining was ultimately non-essential.
Featuring two very acclaimed actors in the lead roles, Waiting for Godot has been somewhat of a surprise success in the West End this year, extending its run right through the summer. This is clearly partly down to the calibre of the leads, Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are two major dramatic heavyweights, but it has also been a bit of a triumph for a straight drama production in these troubled economic times.
Apparently voted the most significant English language play of the twentieth century, Waiting for Godot is a play about two men, Vladimir and Estragon who are, unsurprisingly, waiting for someone called for Godot. We never get to meet Godot, or find out who he is, and so the titular ‘waiting’ forms the backbone of the play as we watch these two men pass the time in a multitude of ways, whilst debating the meaning of life and existence. Twice, they are visited by a man called Pozzo and his slave Lucky.
Out of the two leads, Ian McKellen gave the stronger performance for me as Estragon: he inhabited his role with greater ease and seemed more at home with the physical comedy side of things. Patrick Stewart was good too as Vladimir, but seemed to hold himself a little stiffly at times and lacked some of McKellen’s easily shambolic nature. Simon Callow seems to be having a ball of a time as an almost pantomime like Pozzo, and Ronald Pickup as his slave does an amazing job with an incredibly complex stream-of-consciousness soliloquy.
In the end, I think I just want a bit more from a play. I was a little bemused to find numerous different potential interpretations on the Wikipedia page for the play, and I think this kind of summarises the problem that I had with it. The material is just so open to any manner of interpretation that unless one goes with some preconceived idea of what it is about, the play will just leaves you scratching your head, and wondering what it was all about. I have a similar problem with much of modern art, I know what I like, and quite frankly this just isn’t it!
Here are my top 5 plays for the month of June (not counting second views of things):
2. Sister Act
4. The Cherry Orchard
5. Carrie’s War
and the top 10 (+5) plays of the year so far, seeing (La Cage again made me reconsider its position):
1. When The Rain Stops Falling
2. La Cage Aux Folles
3. The Pieta
5. A Doll’s House
6. Duet For One
7. Sister Act
8. The Last Five Years
9. Burnt By The Sun
10. Parlour Song
11. All’s Well That Ends Well
12. The Observer
13. Dancing At Lughnasa
15. Time and the Conways
From the Nina Bawden book of the same name, Carrie’s War is the latest play to open at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. Telling the story of a sister and brother who are evacuated to Wales during the Second World War, they get swept up in a Gothic world of ghosts, curses, and skulls and when the intrigues of the family with whom they are billeted spill into their lives, decisions are made which haunt Carrie well into adulthood.
It is quite a gentle production, but I do not mean that in a patronising way. It really reminded me of the kind of dramas one used to get on a Sunday afternoon on the BBC, like Tom’s Midnight Garden, Moondial and The Railway Children. This is enhanced by the fact that the 15 characters are played by just 9 actors, so there is a little exaggeration of characterisation, especially with the local yokel types, but not to any negative effect.
Sarah Edmondson is excellent, very convincing as both the older and the younger Carrie, and she has great chemistry with John Heffernan as Albert Sandwich, her fellow evacuee in the village. Prunella Scales is good as a ghostly Miss Haversham-like aunt, and Kacey Ainsworth exudes real warmth (and a great Welsh accent) as the kindly Aunty Lou who takes in Carrie and her brother.
The set is quite compact, but both of the houses look very effective, and the space inbetween becomes very evocative of a battlefield at times, which never lets us forget this is a wartime piece. But my favourite innovation is the constant use of Welsh hymns and songs, performed live by the cast, which provide a fantastic sense of atmosphere.
Carrie’s War is quite a curious piece: I was totally enchanted by it and really enjoyed the nostalgia it evoked, both of the time and my own childhood. And the message it carries (no pun intended) is really quite a good one, about how we are all human and make mistakes, and it is never to late to atone for them. For people, in particular children, who are new to the material, I wonder if it might not prove a little too old-fashioned for them, although it would surely be a shame if they were to choose going to see the new Transformers film over this.