Review: Medea, Barbican

The incomparable Marieke Heebink astonishes in Simon Stone and ITA-ensemble’s production of Medea at the Barbican Theatre

“I remember us
That’s that I do now”

I first saw Simon Stone’s Medea in Amsterdam, in Dutch, without surtitles, and it was a revelatory experience which has lingered long in my memory as one of the best classical adaptations I’ve ever seen. So the chance to revisit it at the Barbican, once again anchored by the incomparable Marieke Heebink in Bob Cousins’ stunning design was unmissable.

And it did not disappoint in its ferocious retelling of Euripides’ classic, as Stone makes it feel urgent and chilling and all-too-appalling believable in its depiction of a woman pushed to the edge. Poleaxed by the revelation of her husband’s affair with his boss’s daughter, her extreme actions saw her committed to a psychiatric institution. A year later on her release, she craves a fresh start but finds the world has moved on without her. Continue reading “Review: Medea, Barbican”

20 shows to look forward to in 2019

So many of the recommendations for shows to see next year focus on the West End. And for sure, I’m excited to catch big ticket numbers like All About Eve, Come From Away, and Waitress but I wanted to cast my eye a little further afield, so here’s my top tips for shows on the London fringe (plus one from the Barbican) and across the UK.

1 Medea, Internationaal Theater Amsterdam at the Barbican
Simon Stone’s sleekly contemporary recasting of Euripides is straight up amazing. Anchored by a storming performance from Marieke Heebink, it is as beautiful and brutal as they come. It’s also one of the few plays that has legit made me go ‘oh no’ out loud once a particular penny dropped. My review from 2014 is here but do yourself a favour and don’t read it until you’ve seen it.

Macbeth, Watermill Theatre
2018 saw some disappointing Macbeths and I was thus ready to swear off the play for 2019. But the Watermill Ensemble’s decision to tackle the play will certainly break that resolve, Paul Hart’s innovative direction of this spectacular actor-musician team will surely break the hoodoo…

3 Noughts and Crosses, Derby Theatre, and touring
Pilot Theatre follow on from their strong Brighton Rock with this Malory Blackman adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz, a Young Adult story but one which promises to speak to us all. Continue reading “20 shows to look forward to in 2019”

Review: Oedipus, Stadschouwberg Amsterdam

Robert Icke tackles Oedipus with the same verve as his celebrated Oresteia in a spectacular Toneelgroep Amsterdam production

“‘Het draait alles om, maar staat zelf stil”

You wouldn’t think Robert Icke could do it again, especially in another language, but his version of Oedipus for Toneelgroep Amsterdam is quite frankly phenomenal. Shifting it into the world of contemporary politics and digging into his familiar bag of tricks doesn’t seem revolutionary on paper but on stage, it was just electric. I don’t think the ticking countdown has ever been so brutally effective.

Hans Kesting’s Oedipus is a breath of fresh air in the politics of this Thebes and Icke sets the play in real time on election night, confining the action to the campaign office where Oedipus awaits the result with his family and friends. That wait is filled with tension, not least because he’s decided to start investigating the death of previous leader Laius which, if you’re not familiar with the plot, is a whole can of worms… Continue reading “Review: Oedipus, Stadschouwberg Amsterdam”

Review: De Dingen Die Voorbijgaan, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam

“Samenleven met jou… maakt me minder eenzaam. Het is de enige mogelijkheid te vergeten dat we langzaam afsterven

Honestly, just look at the photos below, there are just no words to describe how stunning the creative vision of Ivo van Hove, Jan Versweyweld and the rest of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam crew is (co-producing here with Toneelhuis and the Ruhrtriënnale). At a point where I was a little worried that there might be a little van Hove overkill going on (London theatregoers currently have the choice of Hedda Gabler and/or Lazarus), De Dingen Die Voorbijgaan (The Things That Pass) served as the perfect reminder that only a fool would take him for granted in the stunning way that he brings theatre to life.

De Dingen Die Voorbijgaan is an adaptation of a Louis Couperus novel, a Dutch writer from the turn of the last century whose work appears to be undergoing a Rattigan-like re-invigoration as its extraordinary psychological acuity is being rescued from the previously dusty image it has been saddled with. An epic family story, it probes into the legacy of Dutch colonial times and the way in which unresolved bad deeds can infect generation after generation to pernicious effect, depicting the atomisation of the nuclear family long before it became the norm that it is today, something reflected in the austere timeless beauty of Versweyveld’s design. Continue reading “Review: De Dingen Die Voorbijgaan, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam”

Review: Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“I did not yet know the value of the throne”

It’s well over six years now since Toneelgroep Amsterdam blew open my tiny little mind with their Roman Tragedies. Back at a time when this blog was in its infancy, back when I ‘only’ saw something like 10 shows a month, back when making the decision to see a six-hour-long Shakespearean epic in Dutch was something surprising. Nowadays of course it is second nature, I regularly visit Amsterdam to see this extraordinary company work and I’ve been to New York to see director Ivo van Hove cast his magic on Broadway too in The Crucible. But it is nice to only have to go to the Barbican to see them too and at just the four and a half hours, Kings of War is practically an amuse-bouche!

My spoiler-free review from Amsterdam is here but so much more resonated with me second time around, so we’re going deeper here folks. As with the significantly worthier The Wars of the Roses (more than twice as long in toto, less than half as good), the impetus for the storytelling comes from merging Shakespeare’s first history cycle, only van Hove goes one further and includes Henry V (and arguably a smidgen of Henry IV Part 2 too). So the overarching narrative becomes one of power – the violence of seizing it, the realities of maintaining it, the struggle to keep it – as played out over and over again in this vicious cycle of dynastic tussles.  Continue reading “Review: Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican”

Review: Een Bruid in de Morgen, Toneelschuur Haarlem

“Ik heb nog nooit zoiets merkwaardigs gezien als hoe die twee met elkaar omgaan”

Though considered one of the most important contemporary Belgian writers, Hugo Claus’s renown hasn’t stretched much outside of the Flemish-speaking world. So it is perhaps fitting that I saw Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of his Een Bruid in de Morgen (A Bride in the Morning) at the Toneelschuur theatre in Haarlem in its native language, without the English surtitles that are so usefully provided on Thursdays at their main base in the Dutch capital.

I was well up for the challenge though, not least because the show fell under the auspices of their emerging directors programme TA-2 – nurturing the Ivo van Hoves of the future – and through which I saw Julie Van den Burgh’s extraordinary reinterpretation of Blood Wedding back in 2013. This time round, it is Norwegian Maren E Bjørseth getting the opportunity to work with the ensemble company, taking the show around the Netherlands. Continue reading “Review: Een Bruid in de Morgen, Toneelschuur Haarlem”

Review: Kings of War, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam

“En, denk je dat je veilig bent? De veiligheid van een rillend lam door wolven omringd?”

It’s instructive to look at how we (the British) look at Shakespeare compared to them (the Europeans), especially with rival treatments of the first tetralogy on the horizon. Whereas Trevor Nunn’s answer to the perceived issues of the Henry VI plays is to return to John Barton and Peter Hall’s adaptation from the 60s which adapted them, alongside Richard III, but still into three full-length plays. And then we have Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War, in which Ivo van Hove adds Henry V into the mix, and still manages to be done in an evening (albeit 4 and a half hours later…!)

We’ll see how The Wars of the Roses pans out when it hits the Rose, Kingston in the autumn but Kings of War is alive and kicking at the Stadschouwburg in Amsterdam now and for sheer innovative thinking and intelligent reworking, it’s hard to see how returning to the RSC of the 60s will compare in any sense of the word. Liberated from any notion of textual fidelity or theatrical tradition (in terms of how Shakespeare ‘ought’ to be done, I mean), van Hove and his company infuse something genuinely new into the drama, a fierce modernity resulting from this unruly approach.

And it is really an adaptation, a tracking of the throughline of corrupting monarchical power on a single dynasty in the frame of the country pile from which they rule. Sections are divided by kings, so first we see Ramsey Nasr’s fervent Henry V marking the moral highwater that declines with Eelco Smits’ disinterested dweeb Henry VI (all three parts effectively condensed into an hour) and hits rock-bottom with Hans Kesting’s superbly insane Richard III, the evening’s most mesmerising performance. Continue reading “Review: Kings of War, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam”

Review: Medea, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam

“Omdat het kan. Omdat ik me herinner hoe het voelde toen ik het ontdekte, van jullie twee. En ik wil haar laten zien hoe dat voelde.”

There is something hugely exciting about the way that Simon Stone works. His contemporary recasting of The Wild Duck ruffled some feathers when it played at the Barbican in October and now it is Euripides’ turn to be excavated and explored as Stone makes his directorial debut at Toneelgroep Amsterdam with a scorching interpretation of Medea. With Ivo van Hove as Artistic Director and a long-standing repertory company of immense talent, Toneelgroep are surely one of the most exciting companies around – hence my regular trips to Amsterdam to see them – and collaborating with Stone here simply enhances their prestige with such a punishingly powerful production.

Where Stone so fearlessly succeeds is in the discarding of any notion of classical fidelity, opting instead to distil the story to its very essence and then reframing it for modern audiences. So here, through improvisation work with the company, the age-old tale of Medea is interwoven with the true life case of Debora Green, a US mother who attempted to poison her husband and succeeded in killing two of their three children. The result is a combination that simply cannot be ignored, the dismissive unreality of ‘Greek tragedy’ is pulled kicking and screaming into our world, the terrible deeds of this mother – renamed here Anna – made harrowingly believable in this striking new context.

This he achieves through a series of bold decisions. Gone is the Greek chorus and in its place Stone gives voices to Anna’s two children Gijs and Edgar and also to Clara, the Glauce figure with whom Anna’s husband is having an affair. Thus the world of the play is concentrated on the implosion of this nuclear family who now each have their role to play in the psychodramatics that drive Anna to her terrible acts. And Bob Cousins’ design provides the perfect space in which to play them out. A wide expanse of timeless white space again pulling away from classical allusions as it allows for scenes to bleed into each other, take place simultaneously, or be filmed and projected live by the children who are making a family documentary for a school project.

Continue reading “Review: Medea, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam”

Review: Antonioni Project, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“Wie tegenwoordig voor mooie dingen geeft?”

Featuring the return of Toneelgroep Amsterdam to the Barbican, Antonioni Project is another multimedia extravaganza from the Dutch theatre company who blew many, including me, away with their six-hour Shakespeare epic, The Roman Tragedies. Under Ivo van Hove’s direction, they have built up a sterling reputation as one of the leading European companies with their innovative blending of film-making techniques into more traditional theatre and creating a whole new theatrical experience for the audience.

This work pulls together three of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960s films, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, with their common themes of couples struggling to reconcile notions of love with the reality of sex in a changing world that they feel estranged from due to their extreme materialism. The narratives of the three films are mixed, with characters from each interacting, I’d recommend reading the programme beforehand whether you know the films or not just to give you a bit of context that will prove invaluable. Continue reading “Review: Antonioni Project, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican”