Review: Women Centre Stage: Power Play Festival – 24 Hour Plays | Making Headlines

“Open your eyes, what do you see?”

It may well have had much to do with the fact that I was knackered after the previous six but I have to admit that the seventh final session of the Women Centre Stage: Power Play Festival was probably my least favourite of the day. The 24 Hour Plays | Making Headlines programme saw writers respond to headlines of the moment to create rapid response plays – none of which really lived up to the quality of the programmed works that had preceded them.

There were lots of interesting ideas floating around – Rebecca Lenkiewicz and director Anna Ledwich’s scorching take-down of Vogue’s declaration that the cleavage is out of fashion probably worked the best, interleaved with a young woman’s desperate search for adequate healthcare and the inadequacy of male responses to a serious discussion about breasts. And Charlene James’ kidnap drama with a twist gave Maggie Steed a cracking part to play, directed by Alice Hamilton. Continue reading “Review: Women Centre Stage: Power Play Festival – 24 Hour Plays | Making Headlines”

Review: Eternal Love, Cambridge Arts Theatre

“If you marry me you’ll never be a candidate for the Vatican”

Originally seen at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2006 and 2007 as In Extremis, Howard Brenton’s newly retitled Eternal Love marks the 21st birthday year of English Touring Theatre and the first instalment in a three-year-long project to tour quality drama across the country. On a personal note, it also saw my first ever visit to Cambridge (too brief for my liking, I look forward to a return) and the Cambridge Arts Theatre (very friendly, I like the fact I found the bar before I found the box office!).

The retitling offers a further clue to its subject matter in a subtitle The Story of Abelard and Heloise but in some ways, this feels a little bit of a misnomer. For though the enduring love story between the medieval theologian Peter Abelard and his fearsomely intelligent student Heloise is a central part of the play, Brenton also focuses on the key philosophical debate of the time, as intense rival Bernard of Clairvaux declares his determination to defeat this heretical foe and maintain the doctrine of absolute faith. Continue reading “Review: Eternal Love, Cambridge Arts Theatre”

Review: Drawing the Line, Hampstead via livestreaming

“When blood is spilt, disputes between people, nations, religions become all but impossible to solve”

A complete Brucie bonus to start off the year was the unexpected announcement that Howard Brenton’s new play Drawing the Line – a sell-out success at the Hampstead – would have its final performance live-streamed on t’internet. I hadn’t booked for the show as something had to give over Christmas and New Year and so the chance to catch up with it for free, albeit on the screen of my laptop, was one I was glad to take.

The play is set in the final days of the empire, as the British are beating a hasty retreat from the subcontinent but are determined to partition the land, and its diverse people, into India and Pakistan. The job of, quite literally, drawing the line falls to archetypal Englishman and judge Cyril Radcliffe who is shipped off to somewhere he has never been before, to accomplish what turns out to be a fiendishly complex assignment.  Continue reading “Review: Drawing the Line, Hampstead via livestreaming”

Review: Dances of Death, Gate

“My nature may be flawed but I struggle to overcome it”
Is there anything more annoying than someone else having the same good idea as you at more or less the same time. Given the length of time it must take to actually commission a new version of a play and bring it to the stage, who knows when or whether these two coincided but either way, London now has its second new adaptation of Strindberg’s The Dance of Death in six months. Conor McPherson refreshed the play as part of the Donmar’s residency at the Trafalgar Studios 2 but here at the Gate Theatre, Howard Brenton has taken a slightly different tack, incorporating the lesser seen second part to create Dances of Death
The play, as with much of Strindberg’s work, is a barrel of laughs. Edgar and Alice live on a remote Swedish island which is dominated by a military barracks but though they have been married for nearly 30 years, their relationship has deteriorated into a bitterly toxic mess as their disappointments in each other and the world around them has poisoned them to the point where it is this very hatred that sustains them. So much so, that the arrival of Kurt, a figure from their past, merely offers a new dimension to their war games as opposed to a potential exit strategy. It is vicious, bitter stuff, and in the intimacy of the Gate, ought to be near-unbearable.

But it never quite got under my skin and convinced me of its raw animosity. Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe, excellent actors both, felt a little mannered in Tom Littler’s production, not quite surrendering entirely to the bleakness of Strindberg’s worldview. Why this is becomes more apparent with the introduction of a new generation in the second half, as we visit the children of our trio and see how the enmities of the past continue to shape the present but also get a hint of redemptive hope that just doesn’t feel entirely earned.
I liked both Edward Franklin and Eleanor Wyld (still one of my ones to watch) as the next generation but the way in which Edgar and Kurt’s rivalry trundled on lost much of the venom of the sustained onslaught of the first half – just how dense is Kurt…the play doesn’t benefit from giving him more exposure at all. Maybe I would have enjoyed this more had I not seen The Dance of Death so recently but I can’t help but feel that this production doesn’t quite live up to the considerable reputation of this theatre and the fierce emotion that it often provokes. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval) 
Playtext cost: £5
Booking until 6th July

Review: #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Hampstead Theatre

“The art is in what happened to those people’s spirits”

The trick behind James Macdonald’s production of Howard Brenton’s new play #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is to suggest that the 2011 detention and interrogation of the artist by the Chinese authorities was as big and far-reaching a piece of conceptual art as any of his installations at the Tate Modern. Ashley Martin Davies’ design sets the drama in a gleaming white gallery with spectators lining up either side of a wooden crate, whose walls are opened up to portray the two different cells in which he was kept during the 81 days of his imprisonment. The observers, or netizens, remain onstage throughout as Ai is trapped inside the nightmarish absurdities of such an authoritarian regime.

Based on Barnaby Martin’s book Hanging Man which documented Ai’s ordeal using his own testimony, Brenton’s play eschews conventional dramatic structure – it is no secret that the artist is eventually released – for something more ruminative about the nature of incarceration. And in its focus on the detail of the situation, it is ultimately rather insightful into the labyrinthine complexities of living and working under an unbending state whose orthodoxy is struggling to deal with a dissident whose worldwide fame precludes any unexplained disappearance into the murky depths of the system. Continue reading “Review: #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Hampstead Theatre”

Review: 55 Days, Hampstead Theatre

“You are a tyrant, a traitor and a murderer, a public and implacable enemy of the Commonwealth of England”

55 Days sees playwright Howard Brenton return to the history books, after the sheer brilliance that was Anne Boleyn, in this new play for the Hampstead Theatre. The 55 days of the title refer to the period between the enforced creation of the Rump Parliament, the men determined to try King Charles I for high treason, and the subsequent execution of the monarch after Oliver Cromwell failed to reach a compromise with him. It’s a densely packed historical drama, perhaps a greater intellectual than emotional pleasure, but intriguing all the same.

Mark Gatiss takes on the role of Charles I with a wonderfully arch arrogance, utterly convinced of his divine right to rule and the inability of any higher authority to challenge his own, and his louche physical language belies a sharper intelligence that threatens to undo the work of Parliament to build an unprecedented, solid legal case against their king. And that Parliament is led by Douglas Henshall’s puritanical and precise Cromwell, a powerfully pugnacious presence who, though claiming to be governed by pure notions of free-nation-building, is not above the politicking necessary in order to ensure the smooth passing of his will. Continue reading “Review: 55 Days, Hampstead Theatre”

Review: Bloody Poetry, Jermyn Street

“I lifted my skirts. For the good of English poetry.”

Howard Brenton’s play Bloody Poetry explores the relationship that developed between Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron with particular emphasis on the complex romantic entanglements with the women in their lives. We first see Shelley on the shores of Lake Geneva where he has fled scandal in the UK after abandoning his wife to live with new spouse Mary Shelley and her half-sister Claire Clairmont in a scandalous ménage-a-trois. Matters are further complicated by Claire’s liaison with Byron which has left her pregnant and so she sets up a meeting for the four of them in Switzerland which begins the intimate intertwining of their lives.

Brenton carried out vast amount of research for the play and it shows. Existing letters and journals mean that much is known about what happened and the emotions that were felt, but combined with interpolations of poetry – both from the men themselves and from rivals like Wordsworth – these lives are given vivid, passionate life as their determination to live a ‘free’ life unshackles their behaviour from the restrictions of English society but also comes at a cost. The play, directed by Tom Littler for Primavera, spans six years from their first meeting in 1816 until Shelley’s untimely death by drowning in an Italian lake. Continue reading “Review: Bloody Poetry, Jermyn Street”

Re-review: Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare’s Globe

“They see you as a hussy who planned to get your claws into the King from the moment you came to Court”

Another revisit to a play in a month that has seen a fair few and once again, it was to a play I hadn’t intended to see for a second time. This time it was Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn which premiered at the Globe last summer and which seriously impressed as a piece of new writing which managed to bring a potentially very dry historical subject to vibrant life, both enlightening and amusing audiences in equal measure and earning its star, the luminous Miranda Raison, a Best Actress fosterIAN nomination. When it was first announced that it was returning as part of the 2011 Globe Season, the lacking of accompanying casting news led me (and others) to suspect that she would not be returning with the production and so I was quite happy not to bother seeing it again. Sod’s law dictated that Raison did indeed return though and so my resistance was quickly work down and a visit made to the penultimate performance of the run.

My review from last year can be read here and little has changed in that I really did love it just as much second time round. I’d forgotten just how witty it was from start to finish and just how well-written the whole thing is, but particularly the role of Anne. It really is a superb part, shedding a brand new light on a historical figure of whom so much has already been said, but Brenton makes a convincing case for her as a truly unique figure, dazzling with intelligence but also possessed of reckless abandon in the pursuit of her goals. And Miranda Raison breathes such delightful life into her portrayal, brimming with self-confidence and a self-assurance that allows her to dominate Henry VIII for years whilst his divorce with ‘the Aragon cow’ is sorted out yet makes her entirely likeable. Continue reading “Re-review: Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I would lose my life rather than my honesty”

Anne Boleyn marks the first new play in this year’s programme at Shakespeare’s Globe. Written by Howard Brenton, it features Miranda Raison in the title role, continuing a character that she also plays in Shakespeare’s own Henry VIII, also playing in rep. This is a review of the first preview, so please bear that in mind whilst reading my thoughts below.
 
The play covers the life of Anne Boleyn from her time in court as one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting, through her developing relationship with Henry VIII and the ideals of Protestant reform, ideas that ultimately caused her downfall but also sowed the seeds for the huge upheaval that culminated in the Civil War. What Brenton has done though, is to couple this story with the story of James I trying to establish control over a sceptical kingdom and varied religious groupings, centring around his commission of a new translation of the Bible. James is haunted, literally, by Anne’s ghost and her legacy and the two combine to great effect. Continue reading “Review: Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare’s Globe”