My lockdown watching doesn’t get much better with the horribly dreary Red Joan which sorely misuses the treasure that is Dame Judi Dench
“You did this, didn’t you”
Hurrah, you might think, a film with Dame Judi Dench in the lead part. But hold on a mo, Red Joan is also a Trevor Nunn film – take that as you will – and should it ever have reached award conversations, Dench would surely have had to be in the supporting actress category, such is her role in the way the story is lugubriously doled out like a barely dripping tap.
She plays Joan Stanley, a character loosely based on Soviet spy Melita Norwood who passed on details of the British nuclear programme to Moscow, who finds Special Branch knocking on her door and muttering treason. But the majority of the film is told in flashback, as Sophie Cookson plays the younger Joan who back in the 1940s, had her head turned at Cambridge University by the flirty Leo (Tom Hughes with an unconscionable accent) and her politics turned by the horrors of war. Continue reading “Lockdown film review: Red Joan (2018)”
“Sight may distinguish of colours, but suddenly to nominate them all, it is impossible”
First things first for this is too important an issue to be brushed under the carpet, too vital a conversation to not too have because a press release has been summarily issued, the “historical verisimilitude” justification for Trevor Nunn’s decision to cast an all-white company for his Wars of the Roses play cycle is just pure bunkum. At one point in Henry VI, a Norwegian man and a British woman appear on a balcony playing French characters but it’s OK because we’re in a theatre, they’re acting, the natural suspension of disbelief kicks in.
Similarly later on, the four sons of Richard of York appear, three played by adults and one by a boy. Historians might point out that the son played by the boy was the second oldest of York’s surviving issue but again it’s not really that important in the grand scheme of things, theatrical license is granted and it allows for more poignant drama given his ultimate fate. So the historical accuracy argument clearly has little merit, lest we need reminding that Shakespeare is fiction, and the notion that the audience couldn’t connect family trees unless everyone is the same colour is frankly insulting. Continue reading “Review: The Wars of the Roses, Rose Kingston (Nunns-splaining and overview)”
“Every tale condemns me for a villain”
Undoubtedly the best known of the constituent plays of The Wars of the Roses, Richard III appears in a slightly shortened version to wrap up nearly nine hours of theatre. And as such it is solid rather than spectacular, not hugely notable in its own right but slotting perfectly into place as the final piece of this epic trilogy. The culmination of over half a century of internecine conflict, several lifetimes of ruthless ambition and no little amount of pitiless bloodletting, the end is brutal but welcomed.
Robert Sheehan’s Richard dances darkly across the stage, quick as you like in vicious word and bloody deed, and gives forth enough charisma to suggest he could hold many in thrall. Aided by the Mandelson-like spin from Alexander Hanson’s Buckingham and any number of factotums willing to carry out dastardly requests, he is able to effectively play on the sense of a ruined society that has been built over the preceding two plays. Continue reading “Review: Richard III, The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Kingston”
“Work thou the way – and thou shalt execute”
Edward IV was my favourite of the three The Wars of the Roses plays, comprising the latter half of 2 Henry VI and an abridged 3 Henry VI. I might be biased towards it as the middle child of the trilogy but it encapsulates much of what is impressive about the whole enterprise. Its heart lies in two of the crucial grand narratives – the epic sweep of Margaret of Anjou’s rise and fall and the arrival on the scene of Richard of Gloucester as he begins the long con that’ll take him so far – and I actually found there to be an exciting sense of pace about the whole play, right up to its cheeky cliff-hangerish ending.
With civil war raging across the country and death and destruction and betrayal and battles round every corner, Henry VI decides to retreat into pacifism leaving Margaret to assume the mantle of leader as her vendetta against Richard of York becomes increasingly vicious as supremacy swings between the two houses. Clad in chainmail, Joely Richardson radiates a malevolent determination that is well-matched by Alexander Hanson’s fervently committed duke, their tussling over the Iron Throne (well this one is stone…) complicated by multiple machinations from supporters constantly defecting from one side to the other. Continue reading “Review: Edward IV, The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Kingston”
“Between the red rose and the white
A thousand souls to death and deadly night”
Of the three plays of The Wars of the Roses, Henry VI was my least favourite. Taking all of I Henry VI and about half of 2 Henry VI, Trevor Nunn’s production takes an awful long time to really get going, largely hamstrung by one of Shakespeare’s weaker plots. Henry V has died, Henry VI isn’t proving to be much cop and so trouble starts brewing in the rival camps that emerges, the Houses of Lancaster and York. But they brew slowly and for a long time as there’s all sorts of business to deal with in France, including Joan of Arc.
And that business just isn’t that entertaining here, despite Imogen Daines’ committed work as the Maid of Orléans. The importance of the loss of French territory is never keenly felt and though the build-up to the collapse of English political order instinctively registers more significantly, it never feels more than a prelude as we know there is so much more to come (about seven hours). For me, Alex Waldmann’s petulant Henry VI was a disappointment, leaving no real mark on the role amidst a bunch of angry bearded white men shouting a lot. Continue reading “Review: Henry VI, The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Kingston”
“This island is too small if you have big dreams”
Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel Small Island was inescapable at the time, it seemed like everyone I knew had read and loved it but though it went on to win prizes, I wasn’t as big a fan of most of it. That said, I did love much of this television adaptation in 2009 which came just after Ruth Wilson’s superlative turn in the Donmar’s A Streetcar Named Desire as I began to realise how special an actress she really was. The story focuses on the experiences of two women – Queenie Bligh and Hortense Roberts – as the economic and social impact of World War Two ripples out through London and Jamaica.
Naomie Harris’ Hortense is a young Jamaican woman with heady dreams of becoming a teacher in what she sees as the idyllic land of England yet is devastated to find the gloominess of reality, alleviated only once she meets a man called Gilbert; and Ruth Wilson’s Queenie is a working class Yorkshirewoman who moves to London to escape the family farm but with little real prospects. When her job falls through, she accepts the marriage proposal of the attentive Bernard Bligh – Benedict Cumberbatch in full-on English mode – to avoid having to move back but when he leaves for WWII, huge changes are set in motion for all concerned. Continue reading “DVD Review: Small Island”
“Tis not, I know, my lust, but tis my fate that leads me on”
A quick glance at my Top 25 Plays of 2011 on the right sidebar will show you that Cheek by Jowl’s The Tempest was one of the absolute highlights of my theatregoing year and so by rights, I ought to have been highly excited for the company’s return to the Barbican with ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. But it was the Russian sister company that took on Shakespeare last year and my only other experience with CbJ’s English work was a rather painfully dull take on Macbeth, also at the Barbican, which meant I was a little equivocal about this prospect. Great word-of-mouth persuaded me to take the risk though, booking for late in the run, and it was well-founded as it turned out to be a highly inventive, energetic and deeply sexy evening at the theatre.
It was my first experience of the Jacobean tragedy, a cautionary tale about the problems of wanting to bonk your sister, which has been thoroughly revitalised in this modern-dress version which pulses along with the punchy soundtrack that starts the show along with a rather fun full-cast dance routine. Giovanni comes back from university, full of incestuous thoughts about his sister Annabella who is being pursued by a number of suitors. But as it turns out, she only has eyes for her brother too and though she ends up betrothed to Soranzo, watched by the vengeful Hippolita, the ramifications of their love have a deadly impact as religion, culture, corruption and morality collide. Continue reading “Review: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican”
“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”
“I feel like my soul has been bathed in acid”
You know there is a problem when a phrase like the above resonates strongly with you during a play… After a successful take on events post-Macbeth in Dunsinane comes Dennis Kelly’s The Gods Weep which is very heavily inspired by Kurosawa’s film Ran, which was in turn was influenced by King Lear. Admittedly this was a first preview, but at close to four hours long, and full of chaotic fighting, much blood, dead cats and squirrels and an inordinate amount of swearing, this had the amazing effect of making me actually want to watch paint dry instead: it’s not only the gods who will be weeping by the end of this run.
Replacing the feudal kingdoms of Lear/Ran with its modern-day equivalent, a multi-national corporation, the CEO Colm decides that after a lifetime of building an empire through brutal and savage means, it is time to relinquish power to his two subordinates. However in doing so, he unleashes a bloody power struggle between the two rivals with truly devastating consequences and ramifications which force Colm to face up to a lifetime of questionable decisions. Continue reading “Review: The Gods Weep, RSC at Hampstead Theatre”