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: Clarion, Arcola

“I’ve never been convinced by newspaper economics”

They say write of which you know and as a former showbiz editor of the Daily Express, amongst other journalistic credits, it should come as little surprise that Mark Jagasia’s debut play is set in the world of print journalism. More specifically, Clarion takes place in the offices of the kind of tabloid that revels in 300 consecutive days of ‘shock’ headlines about immigration and has few scruples about the tactics it employs in an age of declining sales.

Jagasia clearly has a fondness for his time on Fleet Street and that shines through the satirical comedy here – the almost childlike rantings of a giddily autocratic editor, the salt-of-the-earth plainness of the news editor, the booze-and-expense chugging foreign correspondent, the batty astrologist, the overenthusiastic work experience kind, the journalist with pretensions of becoming a novelist. The larger scenes of criss-crossing banter have a well-wrought energy and sharpness of wit that is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Continue reading “Review: Clarion, Arcola”

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”

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”

TV Review: The Hollow Crown, Henry IV Part I

“Then would I have his Harry, and he mine”

The Hollow Crown continues with Henry IV Part I, directed by Richard Eyre who also does the ensuing Part II (but not Henry V, though the productions are cross-cast). But where Rupert Goold’s Richard II embraced the form to create something more cinematic (although not to everyone’s tastes), this is an altogether more traditional affair and not necessarily the better for it. 

What Eyre brings out is the father-son relationships. Tom Hiddleston’s carousing Prince Hal, partnered extremely well by David Dawson’s Poins in what was an excellent performance I thought, is movingly forced towards maturity on the battlefield, as King Henry, Jeremy Irons in impassive form and making the presence of what is admittedly quite a secondary character really stand out, laments the fecklessness of his heir. This is contrasted of course by the gumption of young Hotspur, Joe Armstrong oozing rugged charisma and forming the highlight of the whole thing for me, and in a lovely piece of casting, his real father, Alun Armstrong has been cast as his onscreen father which added poignancy to their moments.  Continue reading “TV Review: The Hollow Crown, Henry IV Part I”

Review: The Painter, Arcola

“The fashionables…they just want to know if a painting’s hot…”

As their premiere production in their new premises at the Colourworks in Dalston, the Arcola theatre have commissioned The Painter, a play about the well-known artist JMW Turner which plays on the historical links of the building, a former paint factory actually frequented by Turner. And to write it they returned to Rebecca Lenkiewicz, a playwright whose first play was the first to be staged at the old Arcola. It follows other plays about artists which keep popping up at this theatre, The Line and Reclining Nude with Stockings (the title of which has skewed my hit count something chronic) but it is not always easy to translate the aura around an artist and his work to the stage without a genuinely interesting story and I am not convinced that Lenkiewicz has managed that here.

The Painter covers the middle period of his career and centres around the key relationships with women in his life, his mother who is slowly succumbing to dementia, his fertile lover and the prostitute who becomes his model and confidante. This is contrasted with his steadily growing professional success as a painter despite difficult relationships with his contemporaries and as an intellectual who frequently lectured students at the Royal Academy on his views on art despite being of ‘lower’ birth. But to be honest, there’s no real insight offered here beyond that of the superficial biographical. Continue reading “Review: The Painter, Arcola”

Review: Three Sisters, Lyric Hammersmith

“One day you’ll be so bored that you’ll read it”

According to the programme, Christopher Hampton’s version of Three Sisters at the Lyric Hammersmith directed by Sean Holmes and the Filter theatre company, is here to raise “the audience’s otherwise sluggard pulses in a revivifying revival”: what more introduction could we possibly need?!

Three Sisters opens with Irina Prozorova’s name-day celebration, in the provincial Russian town where their late military father had been stationed. Irina and her sisters Olga and Masha make half-hearted attempts to put up with life in their adopted home, but cannot stop longing for their birth town Moscow. We then follow the sisters and a group of acquaintances over a 3 year period as the sisters learn the hard lessons of life. Continue reading “Review: Three Sisters, Lyric Hammersmith”