News: the National Theatre announces 15 new productions for 2019 and 2020

So much goodness! The National Theatre have just announced details of productions stretching deep into 2020, and with writers like Lucy Kirkwood, Kate Tempest, Roy Williams and Tony Kushner, and actors like Lesley Manville, Maxine Peake, Conleth Hill, Cecilia Noble and Lesley Sharp, it is hard not to feel excited about what’s ahead.

Olivier Theatre 

Following a sell-out run at Rose Theatre Kingston, the acclaimed two-part adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by April De Angelis is reworked for the Olivier stage by Melly Still (Coram Boy). When the most important person in her life goes missing without a trace, Lenu Greco, now a celebrated author, begins to recall a relationship of more than 60 years.  Continue reading “News: the National Theatre announces 15 new productions for 2019 and 2020”

Review: My Brilliant Friend, Rose Theatre

“The thing that I’m scared of is that everything will break”

Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan Novels have been a literary sensation since its first part, My Brilliant Friend, was published in 2012. A forthcoming Italian television adaptation will take 32 50-minute instalments to cover the story of the friendship between two Neapolitan women but April De Angelis has condensed the four into a single play, presented in two parts which can be viewed as a double bill or on separate evenings if 5 hours of theatre in a day seems like too much of a challenge. Read my review for This Is My Town here, find production photos for both parts here and get more info on the show here.

Running time: each part is 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 2nd April

Review: The Hairy Ape, Old Vic

“I ain’t on oith and I ain’t in Heaven, get me? I’m in de middel tryin’ to seperate em, takin all de woist punches from bot’ of ’em”

Fans of Bertie Carvel have certainly been rewarded with his recent burst of activity – he starred in Bakkhai at the Almeida, had a major role in BBC drama Doctor Foster and now returns to the theatre to lead this revival of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Hairy Ape. The play is described as a classic expressionist masterpiece and whilst that might be overstating things ever so slightly, it does give a useful pointer to the heightened theatricality of the drama and of Richard Jones’ production. My 4 star review for Cheap Theatre Tickets can be read here.

Running time: 95 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 21st November

 

 

Review: Everyman, National Theatre

“It seems every man has had enough of me”

Starting quite literally with the Fall of Man, Carol Ann Duffy’s contemporary verse adaptation of medieval morality play Everyman sees Rufus Norris direct his first production since taking up the reins of Artistic Director at the National Theatre and finds him in a rather provocative mood. Through 100 minutes of boldly imagined drama, it’s hard not to feel that there’s an element of grabbing this institution by the lapels and giving it a good old shake. Not so much in establishing a definitive vision for the future per se but more in establishing just how wide its parameters will be. 

Norris and designer Ian MacNeil work cleverly within the constraints of the Travelex budget to provide impactful moments with – variously – Tal Rosner’s video wall, a powerful wind machine, William Lyons’ music which combines shawms with Sharon D Clarke most effectively and bags of rubbish. Javier De Frutos makes a significant contribution too as choreographer and movement director, the wordless opening sequence of a coke-and-Donna-Summer-fuelled birthday party makes for a bold beginning. Continue reading “Review: Everyman, National Theatre”

Review: The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable, Temple Studios

“Keep your masks on and remain silent at all times”
Such is the instruction as you enter the cavernous former Royal Mail sorting office in Paddington which has been transformed by the Punchdrunk team into Temple Studios, the venue for their biggest show to date – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. If you’ve been to a Punchdrunk show before, then this will come as no surprise to you (the masks are just as uncomfortable for glasses-wearers); if it is your first, then you should be prepared for something completely different (the masks will still be hot and uncomfortable!) 
Co-directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle are genuine pioneers of the style of site-specific immersive theatre that seems almost everyday now, yet their ethos is one which still manages to surprise people. They’re in the business of theatrical experiences rather than regular plays and so one should never approach one of their shows looking for traditional presentations of conventional narrative. Instead, the onus is on the audience to locate their own journey through the world that has been created, and find their own unique adventure.
That’s not to say that it is always successful but rather to locate any critique in the relevant context. The experience of exploring around four large floors without any guarantee of coming across any ‘action’ will naturally not appeal to everyone, but to criticise a lack of story is a misjudgement as that is not what they are trying to achieve here. The Drowned Man may be inspired by Büchner’s Woyzeck but this a fractured, fragmented version of the source material: scenes or segments just appear into view in a random, unannounced fashion, scattered and refracted like pieces of a kaleidoscope and ultimately unified, if at all, only by being part of one’s own journey through the show.

From exploring the near-deserted expanse of basement dressing rooms to seedy sex cinemas, lunar landscapes to trailer parks in forest clearings, sleazy audition chambers to motel rooms stinking of desperation, the sheer variety and exquisite detail of every single nook and cranny of this substantial space is quite something to behold and offers lots of opportunity for (some possibly verboten) playing around as the picture suggests… And the sequences I happened across held some powerfully intriguing moments too – the best for me happening in Studio 5 with the filming of a perky dance routine degenerating into a violently raunchy threesome and a later return trip there also resulting in another effective scene – regular Punchdrunk artist Conor Doyle giving some excellent work here. 

But a sense of adventurous exploration – we were even clambering on our hands and knees at one point – can only take you so far, especially at the times when it seems like nothing is happening nearby. The feeling of frustration can creep in as you cycle round the same area to little effect, especially when it is as sweatily hot as it was the night we were there (the ground floor bar – pictured – offers a much welcomed cooler environment, complete with live music, if you decide to give yourself an interval), and too many of the segments we witnessed reiterated the similar theme of sexual exploitation without suggesting much more besides – one shouldn’t really be left thinking ‘not another polysexual orgy…”. 

And the dynamics of an audience let loose in this way can sometimes be as exasperating as they are often amusing to watch. For all the talk of this being an imaginative journey for the individual, the way in which the herd mentality kicks in is quite remarkable. The minute a small cluster appears, then people start running to join in, convinced there must be something there – the most amusing incident of this resulted in us breaking the Matrix as the mysterious banging on the door turned out to be someone trying to get out of one of the dressing rooms for the performers – and the determination of some people to always be at the front of what is happening is sadly predictable. 

With some tickets coming in at £50, The Drowned Man does feel ambitiously steep and as unique as the experience may be, it might be hard to justify quite so much for this show, its constituent parts may feel a little underwhelming in an instant analysis. But challenging as it is, there really is something genuinely original in its desire to push us as audience members and redefining just what is to be at the theatre. Everyone should experience at least one Punchdrunk show in their life, even if it is just to confirm that it is not the kind of thing that they like and for all its highs, lows and longueurs, it has been a production that I’ve continued to think about even now, days after I went. Sprawling, big, bold, there’s nothing else like it.

Running time: anything up to 3 hours 
Booking until 30th December 
Note: comfortable shoes are a must and check in your bag at the cloakroom, you do not want to be carrying it around with you, especially in the more crowded areas

Review: Boris Godunov, Swan

“Everywhere they curse the name of Boris”

The instinctive reaction when one hears of a production of a lesser-known work by a well-known writer tends to be one of healthy scepticism, as one waits to find out whether there was a good reason for its relative obscurity. But sometimes there are mitigating circumstances and Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play Boris Godunov – receiving its first ever professional production in English here at the Swan Theatre – sufficiently provoked the ire of the state censors so that it was 30 years after his death before it was first approved and even then, continued political pressure ensured its limited impact.

The uncensored version was finally translated by Adrian Mitchell, premiered at Princeton in 2007 and selected now by Michael Boyd to mark his swansong as AD at the RSC, as part of the ensemble-led globetrotting A World Elsewhere season. And one can see why the Russian authorities wouldn’t have taken too kindly to Pushkin’s satire, indeed still to this day, as wrapped up in the tale of men lying, cheating and murdering their way to become Tsar in the late 1590s is an excoriating indictment of the Russian ruling elite. And what Boyd teases out in this fast-moving version, is that such autocratic leadership is seemingly endemic in this country and so its resonances play out right up to the current day.


Lloyd Hutchinson is an exhilarating presence as the titular Boris, whose increasingly wearied Ulster tones show the weight of a wrongfully seized crown as rumours swell that he murdered the old Tsar’s young heir Dmitry to secure his own place on the throne; Gethin Anthony has a striking energy as the monk Grigory who later grasps the chance to imitate Dmitry and manipulate his way into the hearts and mind of the people and thus grab power for himself, his quicksilver shifts in mood revealing a thrilling emotional instability; and there’s great work from Lucy Briggs-Owen’s pragmatically covetous Polish princess and from James Tucker and Joe Dixon as key courtiers who never allow anything as small as significant political differences to their leader to get in the way of their own advancement. 

Boyd keeps his staging to a minimum on the thrust stage of the Swan, which highlighted his main conceit of the various costumes from different Russian ages hanging at the back of the stage, the players slowly working their way through the wardrobe to reach the Putin-inspired suits of the final scene. And this motif of the changing clothes also allowed for the production’s most striking moment in its evocation of battle-scenes through the beating of coats on the floor, surprisingly effective in its stirring simplicity and indicative of the extremely tight ensemble. John Woolf’s music has a similar unfussy quality that keeps it hauntingly moving and fans of stage gore won’t be disappointed with some grisly moments.

I was kindly invited as part of a bloggers’ event which meant I was lucky enough to get a Q+A session at the end of the show which was lots of fun and highly illuminating in a number of areas: the reality of the experience of actors in a rep season, the relationship with the audience in the open space of the Swan (which brought to mind something of the groundling experience at the Globe for me), the Shakespearean connections that many others were able to draw with Pushkin’s work, and the interesting note that this wasn’t intended to be a comedy but rather that the black humour came naturally through the process of putting it together. Boris Godunov is indeed funnier than one might expect but it also contains two powerful studies of the corrosive effects of chasing power which are superbly brought to life by Hutchinson and Anthony. 

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)

Programme cost: £4
Booking until 30th March

Review: The Duchess of Malfi, Old Vic

“I account this world a tedious theatre, for I do play a part in’t ‘gainst my will”

Usual caveats and all that, this was an early preview of The Duchess of Malfi that I caught at the Old Vic, and so bear that in mind throughout. Positive comments on previews never seem to cause any controversy but without giving too much away about the direction this review (of a preview) will take, that is hardly likely to be the issue here. I have to say that for the first time, especially at a big theatre, I really felt like I was watching something in the middle of its creative process, that really was still trying to find its feet. Which I suppose is what some would argue the preview period is about but when ticket prices of up to £45 are being charged, it does feel a bit rich.

Marking Jamie Lloyd’s directorial debut at the Old Vic, this revival of The Duchess of Malfi was largely most anticipated by me for attracting Eve Best back onto the London stage (though Lloyd’s treatment of She Stoops To Conquer also quite whetted the appetite). Her Beatrice in the Globe’s Much Ado About Nothing really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances that I’ll remember for years to come, and so though it went against my natural instincts, I forked out for a good stalls seat (Row F) for this in anticipation of theatrical yumminess. What I got though was something else, a half-baked cake of a show with what feels like a set of serious misjudgements and lasted well over three hours.

This was first experience of The Duchess of Malfi (I’m choosing to skate over the Punchdrunk interpretation as little of it made any impact on me) and so I wonder how much of a difference that made for me. Upon being widowed, the Duchess takes a new lover, below her class, and marries him secretly as her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, are determined to control her life and when they find out what she has done, during which time she has had 3 children by him (although how she got away with this I’m not entirely sure), they exact a chilling, oppressive revenge on her. Continue reading “Review: The Duchess of Malfi, Old Vic”

Review: American Trade, RSC at Hampstead Theatre

“I don’t even know what you are speaking of but I sense it’s dirty, underhanded and plain illegal”

And so to complete the set… Having initially declared that I was fine with not seeing any of the RSC new commissions at the Hampstead Theatre when they were announced, I’ve now seen all three of them, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s American Trade following on from Little Eagles and Silence in what has been, to be completely honest, a rather underwhelming season. Billed as a contemporary Restoration comedy, this is an ultra-modern, breakneck 90 minutes of multi-coloured, multi-racial, multi-sexual shenanigans, which also happens to mark Jamie Lloyd’s RSC directorial debut. This was a preview performance on the evening of Saturday 4th June.

Insofar as the plot is concerned, young New York hustler Pharus is offered a golden chance to escape his increasingly tricky situation when an unexpected offer from his unknown English Great-Aunt Marian to run a new modelling agency as part of her PR firm comes through. So he crosses the ocean and make a good impression but ends up finding he is best at what he knows and so the model agency becomes a cover for a prostitution racket. But his cousin Valentina, heir presumptive to the business, is not happy with the new arrival and the threat he poses, so she sets about trying to uncover his murky past whilst trying to work her PR spin on a children’s film star who has gone seriously off the rails. Continue reading “Review: American Trade, RSC at Hampstead Theatre”

Review: King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“A man may see how this world goes with no eyes”

 
A double bill of Shakespeare is something that not even I would undertake lightly but as an opportunity to visit the newly opened Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, it was something I couldn’t resist: King Lear in the afternoon for the first time and a revisit of Romeo & Juliet in the evening. Typically, the old maxim about not booking shows to see particular actors came and bit me on the posterior with a depressing predictability, as the main reason for seeing this King Lear was in order to see Kathryn Hunter’s Fool, but as she unexpectedly withdrew from the ensemble at the beginning of the year, the role is now being covered by Sophie Russell.
 
This was only my second ever Lear, Derek Jacobi’s at the Donmar being the first and whilst I enjoyed seeing that with fresh eyes and not knowing the story, it was nice to watch this one with a little more comprehension of exactly what was going on! Though I was still a little perplexed by the mix of time periods covered in the costumes, the courtiers in classical garb but the outside world seemed to be inspired by the First World War, a mixture that was a little too haphazard for my liking. But overall, it did actually combine to quite epic effect, led by Greg Hicks’ powerful turn as Lear. I got more of a sense of a man going mad from Hicks, as opposed to the fragility, even possible onset of senility, of Jacobi’s interpretation, with his viciousness towards Goneril being particularly shocking in a way I didn’t remember so much. Continue reading “Review: King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Theatre”