Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, Watford Palace

“If she’s innocent, we’re simply sending her to God early”

The most powerful image of Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern comes courtesy of the centrepiece of James Button’s design, a timber structure illuminated as a church cross on one side and extending as a noose-bearing gallows on the other. It encapsulates the central thesis of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play – that twisted symbiosis between the Church and the witch-hunts that scarred society for so long – with an eloquence that characterises much of Ria Parry’s production, which is about to embark on a considerable UK tour.

An Out of Joint, Watford Palace Theatre and Arcola Theatre co-production, in association with Eastern Angles, Lenkiewicz based her drama on real-life events in a Hertfordshire village, an all-too-recognisable tale of society seized by collective fervour. It’s been several decades since any witch hunts but when tragedy falls on the village of Walkern, suspicion quickly falls upon the local cunning woman Jane Walkern and her herbal remedies amid whispers of the return of witchcraft, stoked by new priest Samuel Crane who is determined, quite literally, to get his woman. Continue reading “Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, Watford Palace”

DVD Review: Emma (1996 TV)

“Dear Emma bears everything so well”

Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Emma for the television may have suffered by being released in the same year as the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring film version but it is infinitely superior, a much better observed version blessed with an excellent cast, many of whom have gone on to bigger things indeed. Emma herself is played by Kate Beckinsale, Mr Knightley is the recently-returned-to-our-stages Mark Strong, Samantha Morton is the willing Miss Smith and the ever-superb Olivia Williams stars as the inscrutable Miss Fairfax.

Star-spotting aside, it really works as a piece of drama. There’s a real warmth behind the whole affair which keeps it entirely engaging, Beckinsale’s Miss Woodhouse is the personification of charm and her gaucheness feels genuinely couched in innocence as she leads Morton’s Harriet a merry dance with her misguided match-making and eventually learns more about the world than her Highbury blinkers ever allowed. And Mark Strong’s pragmatically strong (ba-dum-tish) Knightley is a perfect match for her, practical in every sense as a hands-on landlord. Continue reading “DVD Review: Emma (1996 TV)”

Review: A Life, Finborough

“You are an Irish summer of a man”

Having spent most of his life fulminating behind his civil service desk in small-town Ireland, Desmond Drumm is forced to re-evaluate everything when he is given just six months to live in this fiercely moving and funny play from Hugh Leonard – A Life. Aware he has frequently sacrificed people for his principles, he attempts to make his peace with his oldest friends. But old scores from the past must be dealt with first and so as he struggles to get his emotional affairs in order in the current day, reminiscences of his younger days play out at the same time, shedding light on how Drumm has become the man he is. A commission from the Finborough Theatre, Eleanor Rhode’s production is the first UK showing for this Tony-nominated play in 30 years. 

Rhode’s previous work here has clearly encouraged her to explore the boundaries of how this intimate theatre can be used, creating an extraordinary sense of openness and space. James Turner’s design is stark simplicity, just crashing surf daubed on the wall behind and a single chair – a neat nod to the play – with props being kept to a bare minimum, to enhance the feeling of fluid timelessness. And scenes are played out from unexpected places – the extreme sides, the steps amidst the audience –popping up like fragments of memory that cannot be ignored either by us or by the older versions of the characters. Continue reading “Review: A Life, Finborough”

Review: Danton’s Death, National Theatre

“I’m sick of this rigmarole”

Danton’s Death, the 1835 play about the French Revolution by Georg Büchner, marks an impressive brace of debuts: Toby Stephens making his first bow on the stage here in the title role and Michael Grandage, Artistic Director of the Donmar, making his directorial debut here on the South Bank. Setting up in the Olivier theatre for the summer, it is part of the Travelex season so there’s been plenty of £10 seats available. This was the first preview that I saw, I acknowledge this freely but stand by everything I say here.

The story is set in 1794, a period between the first and the second terrors during the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety has been set up in the name of the revolutionary new order and is summarily executing people whether the accusations against them are true or not. Its creator, Georges Danton, has come to regret his part in the genesis of something responsible for the killings of so many people and has been shocked at the way in which the revolution has been increasingly radicalised. His former friend and colleague Robespierre is at the head of this new faction leading the way and when Danton makes a stand for what he sees as too much, the stage is set for an almighty power struggle between the two political rivals. Continue reading “Review: Danton’s Death, National Theatre”

Review: The Enchantment, National Theatre

Does context make a difference? Not knowing anything about Victoria Benedictsson, the Swedish writer of The Enchantment, would leave you thinking that this is just another tale of Nordic emotional angst, the doom and gloom we know from the likes of Strindberg and Ibsen. But there’s much more to it than that: Benedictsson herself had a scandalous affair with a critic which ended badly in him rejecting her both sexually and artistically and she consequently committed suicide just months after completing this play in 1888. Her story then formed the inspiration for both aforementioned writers: the seeds of both Miss Julie and Hedda Gabler could be said to arise from here.

The Enchantment is probably best described as semi-autobigraphical, clearly heavily informed by her own experiences but not a strict representation thereof. Caddish sculptor Gustave Alland captures the heart and mind of Louise Strandberg whilst she is recuperating in her brother’s Parisian art studio. She tries to forget him by fleeing back to her native Sweden and a life of domestic drudgery, but temptation is strong and she returns to surrender to an utterly unsuitable affair that cannot end happily. Continue reading “Review: The Enchantment, National Theatre”

Review: Thérèse Raquin, National Theatre

Thérèse Raquin was originally a novel by Emile Zola but he adapted it into a play himself, though the version that is being put on here by Marianne Elliott at the National Theatre is one by Nicholas Wright, who worked absolute wonders translating Philip Pullman’s epic His Dark Materials trilogy into one of the best theatrical experiences of my life. The story follows the doomed antics of a couple embroiled in an adulterous affair and the devastating consequences of not being able to live with what they’ve done.

Maybe it was a consequence of not knowing the novel rather than it being a weakness of the play, but I didn’t like the fact that we entered the story at the mid-point, so that the love triangle had already mostly played out with Thérèse already tumbled for Laurent and Grivet cuckolded. I wanted to see more of this build-up to get a better sense of the characters and their motivations: as it was, I didn’t really believe in the erotic drive between the lovers, nor saw the side to the husband that forced such a dark decision as the one they carried out. Having to accept all this as a fait accompli and making the focus of the play the moral reaction to their dastardly deed felt slightly skewiff to me and this I didn’t much care for it, or them. Continue reading “Review: Thérèse Raquin, National Theatre”

Review: His Girl Friday, National Theatre

Marking my first visit to the National Theatre since moving to London, His Girl Friday is a play which has been adapted by John Guare from 2 sources: the 1928 play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and the 1940 film adaptation His Girl Friday by Howard Hawks which inverted the gender of the lead protagonist. Thus a madcap romantic element to this story of energetic newshound Hildy Johnson and her editor (and ex-husband) Walter Burns who will stop at nothing to stop her impending wedding to another man. In the midst of all of this is the scoop of the century which Hildy cannot resist as she revels in the world of cutthroat journalism.

As the central couple, Zoë Wanamaker and Alex Jennings were simply fabulous, the electricity between them just crackles with suppressed sexual energy as it is clear that this couple really does belong together and their fights full of whip-sharp wisecracks and putdowns are a joy to watch as the intersection of their professional and personal relationships makes for a whole lotta farcical fun and they are both excellent at showing how dog-eat-dog their world is. Continue reading “Review: His Girl Friday, National Theatre”