Review: The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, Orange Tree

“It’s rotten when you’re tied to a life you don’t like”

Whilst the news that the loss of its Art Council funding is a terrible blow (especially as Paul Miller’s reign as Artistic Director has barely begun), it was a little surprising for me to hear how vociferous the response was – apparently this venue is much more well-loved and well-regarded than anyone knew. Its mix of revivals of dusty half-forgotten plays and examples of the safer end of new writing has never really connected with me and so despite the best efforts of some to persuade me otherwise, it’s never become a must-see theatre for me.

And at first sight, it doesn’t appear that much has changed with Miller’s opening salvo of a DH Lawrence play that is rarely performed but looking further into his debut season, there’s much more excitement to be had – writers like Alice Birch and Alistair McDowell and directors David Mercatali and Paulette Randall suggest a realignment of the theatre to a more pleasingly contemporary aesthetic (though not exclusively, there’s still some Bernard Shaw in there) that could well see me turning into a regular. Continue reading “Review: The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd, Orange Tree”

Review: The Silver Tassie, National Theatre

“There’s no more to be said
For when we are dead
We may understand it all”

Commemorating the start of the First World War has turned into something of a full-time business for the nation’s theatres but in reviving the rarely-seen 1927 Sean O’Casey anti-war piece The Silver Tassie, the National Theatre has hit on something special. The play is structurally extraordinary in the difference of its four acts – a vaudevillian take on an Irish household transforms memorably into the visceral horror of a battlefield haunted by music hall songs, after the interval a hospital-set comedy eventually turns into stark realism, as the shattering effects of war on society are laid bare. Howard Davies’ epic production forges through blood and noise to find a most painful truth.

The cumulative effect may challenge some and is certainly disorientating at times but it also has a form of progression that feels natural, like feeling a way through what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Opening in the Dublin tenement home of the Heegans, the play riffs on Irish stereotypes through the clownish figures of Sylvester and Simon and the neighbourhood archetypes they teasingly mock but soon allows young gun Harry Heegan to take centre stage, boasting the trophy – the Silver Tassie – he and his teammates have won playing soccer, just before they head off to join the British war effort.  Continue reading “Review: The Silver Tassie, National Theatre”

Review: Our Ajax, Southwark Playhouse

“Now I know war makes men lose all sense of themselves”

Like Caroline Bird last year for the Gate, Timberlake Wertenbaker has looked to tales of Ancient Greece to create a new play that speaks of the unique trials of modern warfare and the demands it places on soldiers from “Troy, Flanders, Basra, Helmand” and beyond. Our Ajax draws on Sophocles’ Ajax as well as dialogues with people serving in the armed forces right now, but as with Bird’s The Trojan Women, there are difficulties in combining the Hellenic elements – not least the presence of divine power – with the all-too-real scenario of modern-day desert combat.

In a world where the acronym PTSD is chillingly familiar, this Ajax is a decorated Lieutenant Colonel who flips over the edge when he is passed over for a promotion to Brigadier which goes to rival Odysseus instead. But though his devoted battalion recognise what is happening, there are no structures in this version of the military to deal with such crises and so as Wertenbaker unpicks the varied reasons for Ajax’s mental collapse, there’s an inexorable slide towards tragedy that spans from the personal to the institutional. Continue reading “Review: Our Ajax, Southwark Playhouse”

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”