Review: The Lower Depths, Arcola

“Living is fucking impossible and that’s the truth of it”

The Arcola launch their Revolution Season, marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and exploring its considerable impact, with a new production of Gorky’s The Lower Depths played by an ensemble who will remain on duty for the subsequent play in the main house The Cherry Orchard. And whilst I do enjoy getting to visit and revisit an ensemble, I have to admit to really not enjoying this.

Translated by Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter-Blair and directed by Helena Kaut-Howson, The Lower Depths focuses on the downstairs from Chekhov’s upstairs, the angst of the aristocracy replaced by the desperation of the downtrodden and it really is as much fun as it sounds. A cast of nearly 20 play an assortment of misery-bound miscreants passing through a Moscow lodging house for the destitute, complaining volubly about their lot in life. Continue reading “Review: The Lower Depths, Arcola”

Review: Shakespeare in Love, Noël Coward Theatre

“What kind of man would you be without the theatre”

I can’t lie – I had rather low expectations when it came to the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, not helped by rewatching the film recently and marvelling at how it managed to win 7 Academy Awards back in 1999. But I equally have to admit to being swept away by Declan Donellan’s production of Lee Hall’s adaptation which is set to open this week at the Noël Coward Theatre, it managing to find an identity of its own (after a relatively slow start) to try and recapture the hearts of audiences anew.

Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s original screenplay saw Shakespeare as a jobbing playwright, tussling for commissions with friendly rival Kit Marlowe and dealing with a particularly sticky case of writer’s block. With his unhappily married wife and kids sequestered in Stratford-upon-Avon, he embarks on a forbidden affair with noblewoman Viola de Lesseps, who has her own battles to face in being denied the career on the stage that she craves and being married off to the obnoxious Wessex. Their romantic strife thus provides the creative spark for Will to write Romeo and Juliet.

Where the film did work for me was in the overload of Shakespearean puns worked into the script, often wittily suggesting that the bard took inspiration from all around him; where it did not was with the central romance which lacked any real sense of passion for me. Funnily enough, the converse was pretty much true here. Tom Bateman’s freshly appealing Will and Lucy Briggs-Owen’s hugely characterful Viola have enormous chemistry and theirs is a romance to root for.

Instead, the repeated gags of references to other Shakespeare plays prove to be something of a hindrance, occasionally interrupting the flow of the show –(the ‘out damned spot’ bit takes way too long of a set-up although the payoff is fun) – and often falling flat. Without them being cleverly worked in (like ‘tomorrow’ ‘and tomorrow’), they lose their impact, Will just declaring ‘oh brave new world’ as he schtups Viola doesn’t really mean anything at all. Equally, the delayed John Webster joke flew over the heads of the majority of this particular audience!

Fortunately there’s much more to the production as well. Paddy Cunneen’s highly atmospheric music is sung and played live onstage, Nick Ormerod’s inventive design allows for both the intimate and the grand, and the brightness of the supporting cast – David Oakes’ twinkle-eyed Marlowe, Ferdy Roberts’ Fenniman, David Ganly’s Burbage and Paul Chahidi’s Henslowe just to name a few, give real life to the Elizabethan theatrical world.

And this is where the show really works, a Noises Off-esque sequence that takes place backstage as a play goes on is really well put together, combining great humour and pathos, and the rivalries and relationships between the playwrights and theatre managers give rise to a wonderful sense of community, ending up as a love letter to the theatre as much to Shakespeare himself.

Photos: Johan Persson
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 25th October

Review: Punishment without Revenge, Arcola

“I may exaggerate beyond all sense and reason”

The third of the Spanish Golden Age plays for me was Punishment without Revenge – El Castigo sin Venganza – another Lope de Vega play but rather than the (not so) comic stylings of green breeches, this is a straight up tragedy and consequently emerges as the strongest of the lot. In the court of the Duke of Ferrara, an illicit passion builds up between the Duke’s bastard son Federico and Cassandra the Duchess of Mantua, the woman he is sent to collect to be a bride for his father. They submit to their urges when the Duke leaves for battle but on his return, the abuse to his honour must be avenged.

William Hoyland is excellent as the vituperative Duke, possessed of a deadly charm with the most vicious edges with some striking speechifying; Nick Barber’s handsome Federico pairs well with Frances McNamee’s Cassandra (a nice casting touch as they also portray lovers in another of the plays) as they pursue their doomed love in spite of the threat it poses to them; and even a lighter side is allowed to shine through the court shenanigans in the form of Simon Scardifield’s manservant and the blustering courtiers of Chris Andrew Mellon and Jim Bywater. Continue reading “Review: Punishment without Revenge, Arcola”

Review: A Lady of Little Sense, Arcola

“She is as thick as potato mash”

The remit of the Spanish Golden Age rep season, a co-production between Arcola Theatre, the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath, and the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, is to bring to light three rarely performed plays from what they term “the last unopened treasure chest of world drama”. But whilst the academic interest of delving into this cultural period is undoubtable, the quality of the drama uncovered feels variable.

Lope de Vega’s A Lady of Little Sense, or La Dama Boba from 1613, is a romantic comedy whose tales of the arranged marriages of two sisters recalls The Taming of the Shrew. Wealthy businessman Don Octavio has two beautiful daughters to marry off but the educated Nise has an arrogance to match her intelligence and her sister Finea is as dopey as they come – the suitors that come to take their hands thus have to decide the lesser of two evils. Continue reading “Review: A Lady of Little Sense, Arcola”

Short Film Review #31

Forgive

 

Sometimes, the simplest things are the best, and so it proves with Manjinder Virk’s film Forgive. A two-hander split between two timeframes, an estranged father and son reaching out but at different times, forgiveness paling into insignificance in the face of forgetting. Sacha Dhawan and Abdi Gouhad are both superb as the scars left by the sins of the past bite hard, but not quite hard enough to eradicate all traces of familial love as the unpredictability of the future shakes all certainties. Beautifully restrained film-making at its best.

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Short Film Review #30

 
War Hero

 

Doug Rao came to my attention as part of the Spanish Golden Age ensemble currently at the Arcola and I was intrigued to see he was an acclaimed writer and director as well as an actor. His debut short film War Hero hit the festival circuit in 2007 and it isn’t hard to see how it was considered worthy. A densely packed story set in a military hospital , Rao poses questions about the morality of warfare (particularly in Iraq), its effects on the individuals tasked with carrying out the orders and the collateral damage it inevitably collects.

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Review: Don Gil of the Green Breeches, Arcola

“What’s your disguise for?”

The signs were there, I just chose not to see them. The main one being that the author of Don Gil of the Green Breechesor Don Gil de las Calzas Verdes was Tirso de Molina, who also wrote Damned By Despair, otherwise known as one of the biggest car crashes at the National in a goodly while. But I didn’t investigate too much – I allowed myself to be seduced by the notion of an ensemble performing new translations of three neglected plays from the Spanish Golden Age and the murmurings of good reviews from Bath where they opened last year.

But suffice to say that Don Gil did not do it for me. A broad cross-dressing comedy of sledgehammer subtlety, one can identify some similarities with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night which preceded this play by about a decade, but what is more notable is the poor comparison that it makes. The plot twists endlessly and mindlessly through a set of baffling contrivances and clearly cognisant of this, Tirso de Molina has one character or another recap just where we’re at at the beginning of what feels like every scene, there’s nothing but exposition and it is still clear as mud. Continue reading “Review: Don Gil of the Green Breeches, Arcola”