TV Review: A Poet in New York

“I am such a disappointment, to everyone it seems. Of course”

Just a quickie for this as it was far too brilliant a piece of television to let slide without comment. Written by Andrew Davies and directed by Aisling Walsh, the focus is the final few months of Dylan Thomas’ life where his alcohol abuse is putting both his health and career at risk during a trip to New York intended to culminate in a meeting with Stravinsky to discuss a collaboration. Whilst staying in a Chelsea hotel, he delves back into his mind’s eye to revisit key moments of his life to desperately try and find something to cling onto.

Tom Hollander is sensational as the booze-sodden Thomas, tragically crushed by the addiction he can’t kick but yet so movingly eloquent when reciting his poetry, which Davies makes great use of throughout the screenplay, and remembering the relationships with his ailing father, and with wife (Essie Davis) and child in Wales, which stimulated such great art from him. Phoebe Fox matches him though as assistant and lover Liz, along with Ewen Bremmer as his long-suffering agent, their efforts to keep him afloat almost unbearably poignant as he pushes them away. Continue reading “TV Review: A Poet in New York”

Still-not-a-Review: Japes, Hampstead Downstairs

“You’re too good for me, that’s the trouble”

I continue to have little to say about the Simon Gray quartet of plays – Japes is the third for me – aside from to point you to how they were described on the website. 

“Experience four Simon Gray plays based on the same characters, in the same situation but all telling a different story with opposite conclusions…”
 

If I cared enough, I would start to investigate trade description law. The last one – Missing Dates – comes next week for me at which point I will try to put down how this whole enterprise has made me feel.

Not-a-Review: In the Vale of Health – Japes Too, Hampstead Downstairs

“I don’t mind sharing him with you”

And so back to the downstairs theatre at the Hampstead for round two of Simon Gray’s In the Vale of Health. For me, this is Japes Too – there apparently being no set order in which to see these four plays – after Michael last week, and though I wish I had something to say about Japes Too, I can’t say that I do at this point – it is probably safer to leave it until I’ve seen at least one more.    

Review: In the Vale of Health – Michael, Hampstead Downstairs

“I’ve never had a bad review, at least not in the theatre”

A cycle of four interlinked Simon Gray plays might have seemed a curious enterprise for the Hampstead Theatre but it is one that has paid rich dividends before even a curtain had been raised. The run in the downstairs space sold so well that a transfer upstairs to the main house was quickly announced for In the Vale of Health, four plays which feature the same characters in the same situation but making different decisions – Japes, Japes Too, Michael and Missing Dates.

The play that started it all off is Japes but in the mad rush to get the highly bargainous multi-deal that worked out at a fiver a show, all thoughts of scheduling went out of the window and so I’ll be seeing Japes third and the show that started off my experience was Michael, the one that Gray wrote third in the sequence of exploring the potential worlds of these characters. We were told that the plays could be watched in any order though I can’t help but wonder if seeing Japes first might not have been a better idea.  Continue reading “Review: In the Vale of Health – Michael, Hampstead Downstairs”

Review: Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios

“Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more”

What is it that makes a hit? Jamie Lloyd’s Macbeth, the first show in his Trafalgar Transformed residency at the Trafalgar Studios, has rapidly become one of the hottest tickets in town, selling out nearly all of its shows and inspiring epic levels of queuing for the dayseats.  And the audience it has drawn, at this show at least, felt significantly younger than one would usually see at a West End house. So something has clearly worked in the marketing of Shakespeare’s tragedy to make it the kind of success that they most likely hadn’t dared dream of. In light of that, it seems almost immaterial that I predominantly found it a disappointing production.  

It was a fascinating experience to see the reactions of fresher eyes to a play whose ubiquity, arguably, does not necessarily correlate with its quality. For all its noble brutality and visceral poetry, it can be something of a hard ask in its later stages, no more so than in Act 4 Scene 3 which is the stuff of theatrical nightmares, yet it remains popular. And in Lloyd’s production with its Kensington Gore-splattered imagining of a near-future dystopian Scotland (the consequence of independence…?) and frequent bold strokes especially in Soutra Gilmour’s design which cleverly opens out, it clearly connected with its teenage audience from their frequent audible reactions.

But for me, much of it underwhelmed. My major problem was with the clarity of the verse-speaking, not with the Scots accent before I’m labelled a Sassenach, but in the establishment of a speaking style that replaced subtlety and rhythm with speed and volume. Throw in the gas masks of the weird sisters and I was left extremely glad that it was a text I was familiar with. The overall impression is one which evokes a spiralling inevitability to the end but so much is lost on the journey as the richness of Shakespeare’s words is plundered.

James McAvoy (returning to a role he has acted on television before) brings an undeniable energy to Macbeth himself but in most effective in the rare moments where the BPM is reduced to allow something profound to grow out of this interpretation. He lacks any chemistry with Claire Foy’s Lady Macbeth though, her delivery being one which really rankled with me, which undermines one of the strongest motors of the plot and as with many modernisations, the removal of nobility from the set-up – this Macbeth always feels like a fighting terrorist – somehow lessens its impact. 

There’s good work from Forbes Masson as Banquo, Hugh Ross as Duncan and Allison Mackenzie’s Lady Macduff – I still remain unsure about Jamie Ballard’s Macduff but I think that’s as much to do with my own preconceptions about the character. And ultimately that’s what I was left thinking, about how much we carry expectation into productions of play that we’ve seen so many times. Whilst I’d rather they hadn’t laughed so much at the darker moments, it was pleasing to see theatre connect with a younger audience even as my jaded blogger’s pencil dismissed it as uninspired. It’s a good job I only have two more Macbeths (so far) in the calendar ahead… 

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 27th April

Not-a-review: Scenes from an Execution, National Theatre

“Art is opinion, and opinion is the source of all authority”

Not too much to say about Scenes from an Execution as we left at the interval and so any opinion has to take that into account, along with the fact this was actually the first full preview (the previous night’s performance being re-cast as a full dress). Howard Barker’s play, originally written for radio, is centred on Galactia, a sixteenth century Venetian artist who is commissioned to create a giant celebration of the triumphant Battle of Lepanto, but whose strong will and artistic impulses set her firmly at odds with the authorities.

Fiona Shaw returns to the National Theatre to take on this part, directed by Tom Cairns, so it is fair to say that expectations were a little high, but I just wasn’t prepared for the utter lack of engagement that came from the first half. It opens entertainingly enough: a naked man spread-eagled on a rock, an artist sketching him with a smock barely covering her up, a narrator figure flying around (literally) in a big white box (kudos to Hildegard Bechtler’s design). But after the initial set-up, I found little of interest in the portrayal of this fictional painter’s trials and tribulations. Continue reading “Not-a-review: Scenes from an Execution, National Theatre”

Review: Antigone, National Theatre

“When things must be, they will be”

Though the prospect of a different kind of Greek tragedy is one that is dominating our headlines at the moment, the ancient Greek kind remain an enduring presence in our theatres. Sophocles’ Antigone is the latest to re-emerge at the National Theatre with director Polly Findlay using Don Taylor’s version of the play, originally done for the BBC in the 1980s. Her production locates this version of Thebes somewhere in the North of England in the late 1970s (at least that’s when I reckoned but others in the group were less sure) in which Jodie Whittaker and Christopher Eccleston take the leading roles.

Thebes has been wracked by civil war and turmoil and in the aftermath of a particularly bloody struggle between the two brothers fighting over the throne, Creon seizes control and becomes king. To stamp his authority on the city, Creon opts to bury one brother but leaves the body of the other more rebellious one to rot outside on the battlefield. This horrifies Antigone, sister to the men and niece to Creon, and despite a royal decree forbidding anyone to touch his body on the pain of death, she sets about doing what she thinks is right. Continue reading “Review: Antigone, National Theatre”

Review: Written on the Heart, Duchess Theatre

“I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts”

In perhaps one of the more surprising transfer moves of recent months, the RSC have brought last year’s production of David Edgar’s new play Written on the Heart into the West End to take up residency in the Duchess Theatre. I say surprising because it is a good while since the show ran in Stratford and though it received relatively good notices, they hardly set the world alight. But to town it has come and to be honest with you although it is nice to see a wealth of plays occupying West End houses, I can’t see it lasting very long in the cut-throat theatrical ecology.  

Edgar’s play is an almightily verbose work about the creation of the King James Bible. We start with James I’s decision to commission an authorised English Bible nearing its end in 1610 in the midst of endless committees debating the translation of every word. We then move around in time to see William Tynedale reaping the grim consequences of creating his own version in the reign of Henry VIII and also dip into the reign of Elizabeth I during the decatholicisation of many churches, where a young clergyman sees Tyndale’s work for the first time. As we then return to 1610, we see that that young man, Lancelot Andrewes, is now spearheading the Authorised version and recognise the debt that he owes to Tyndale. Continue reading “Review: Written on the Heart, Duchess Theatre”

Review: Emperor and Galilean, National Theatre

“Words and thoughts are just as important as deeds”

Though Ibsen is reputed to have described Emperor and Galilean as his ‘major work’ which took nine years to complete, it has never previously been staged in English and little is known about it given how often his other works are revived. This may well be because it was not actually written for the stage but to be read, consequently the original epic spreads over ten acts and is allegedly over eight hours long. Never one to shirk a challenge though, the National Theatre commissioned a new adaptation by Ben Power which condenses it down to about 3 hours 20 minutes yet still employs over 50 performers to bring this version of Ibsen’s epic to life. This was a preview performance on Monday 13th June.

The play spans 351 to 363AD, following the life of Julian, nephew of the Roman emperor, an intelligent erudite man even from his teenage days which were spent exploring his faith and studying the Bible with his friends. But chafing against the constraints of the imperial household which isn’t altogether sympathetic to his existence, he escapes to a carefree existence in Athens where he is seduced by the exotic lure of the worship of the ancient pagan Gods. His eventual rise to Holy Roman Emperor thus saw him try to abolish Christianity as the state religion and replace it Paganism, returning back to the values of old, but conflating his own personal struggle with faith with the trials of ruling a fading empire is an awful lot for one man to take on. Continue reading “Review: Emperor and Galilean, National Theatre”