Review: The Son, Duke of York’s

Some excellent acting makes The Son, Florian Zeller’s latest West End hit, worth a trip to the Duke of York’s Theatre

“Sometimes I feel I’m not made for this life”

British theatre’s determination to adopt Florian Zeller as one of its own continues unabated as the Kiln Theatre’s production of The Son transfers into the Duke of York’s for the autumn. It completes a loose trilogy of family plays (The Father, The Mother) though it is decidedly less tricksy than either of its predecessors.

The subject at hand here is mental health and in some ways, the directness feels like the right choice. A child of a broken home, Nicolas is a troubled soul – his mum Anne is unable to cope on her own, his dad Pierre’s attentions are split with his new family, and no-one seems to really clock how deep his depression runs. Continue reading “Review: The Son, Duke of York’s”

Re-review: Medea, National Theatre

“I choose to take back my life.

My life.”

Booking a return trip to anything Helen McCrory is starring in is something of a reflex action now but I was more pleased than usual to be able to revisit Medea as conversations with numerous of my friends who were not fans had left me questioning whether I had maybe over-rated the show on first viewing. And it was equally nice to find out that I had not. I can see why elements of Carrie Cracknell’s production might have been polarising but for me, the synergy between the different disciplines is alchemical.
 
From jerky dancing to Goldfrappian swells of music, luxury cameos through to an actor magisterially making her mark on an oft-played role to dominate the vast auditorium of the Olivier, it’s a Medea for our time and so it was entirely correct that this performance should be part of the NTLive programme and be broadcast to cinemas across the world. Spine-chillingly remarkable stuff and that’s all I really have to say!

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 4th September

Review: Medea, National Theatre

“Terrible things breed in broken hearts”

Euripides’ Medea has long been considered one of the greatest roles for a woman to play so it is a little surprising (or perhaps not) that it hasn’t been performed at the National Theatre before. But the winds of change blow even on the South Bank so it makes great sense that one of our finest living actresses, Helen McCrory, should take on the part in a production by Carrie Cracknell, herself responsible for making some of that change with recent shows like A Doll’s House and Blurred Lines.

Ben Power’s new version relocates the betrayed Medea in a blasted contemporary setting (another ingeniously cracking design from Tom Scutt, evocatively lit by Lucy Carter) where she and her two children anxiously await news of the husband and father who has abandoned them for a newly politically expedient marriage. Trapped in a foreign land, having severely burned her bridges with her homeland, we watch helplessly along with a hefty Greek Chorus as grief inexorably transmutes into anger.  Continue reading “Review: Medea, National Theatre”

Review: Twelve Angry Men, Garrick

“There’s always one”

My classic movie knowledge is terrible – I rarely watch old films and though I am frequently bought DVDs of “must-see classics”, they invariably remain in their wrappers on a shelf, waiting for the day when I finally decide to catch up on years of cinematic history. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve never seen Twelve Angry Men. Nor had I any intention of going to see it onstage to be honest – though the Garrick Theatre is blessed with a lovely intimacy from the Grand Circle, charging 40-odd quid does seem a little optimistic, but the lovely people at Bargain Theatre (worth following on Twitter too) came through with a deal that saw those seats reduced to £16 and so I took the bait. 

Playing out in real time, the play follows the deliberations of an all-white 12-man jury on a hot and sticky New York afternoon in the 1950s as they are tasked with delivering a verdict on a murder case which has seen a young black man be accused of stabbing his father. But what seems like an open-and-shut case becomes more complicated when the initial vote indicates 11 consider him guilty and 1 considers there to be reasonable doubt, and so the debate begins as each side tries to win the absolute majority it needs to prevail. In doing so, the various men – all only known by their juror numbers, never their names – reveal how their prejudices and presumptions have guided them as they decide whether to send this man to the electric chair. 

As they thrash through the finer details of the case and interrogate the notion of reasonable doubt, it is impossible to ignore the contrivances needed to keep the action firmly in the jury room – the defence counsel were clearly having a bad day in the office given what they apparently missed. And there’s something schematic in the way in which the momentum in the room inexorably shifts, there is no doubt at all about how the whole thing will play out from the off as the artfully pensive Martin Bell-suited Juror 8 starts sowing his seeds of doubt. Martin Shaw is certainly good in this role but it’s awfully hard not to see him as just slightly sanctimonious at times.

But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself somewhat at the same time as identifying this creakiness. Michael Pavelka’s set revolves its giant table to show the wheel of justice in (slow-)motion and has the unexpected benefit of showing you exactly where we are in the play (it makes one full circuit by the end). And it also helps director Christopher Haydon allow his cast their moment each to shine, whether Miles Richardson’s virulent working-class racism, Robert Vaughn’s elder statesman ultimately bringing his experience to bear or the reasoned if shouty determination of Jeff Fahey. Legal dramas may have come a long way since Reginald Rose wrote this but there’s something of the old-school charm about Twelve Angry Men (but keep your eyes out for a deal).

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes
Booking until 1st March

Review: Boris Godunov, Swan

“Everywhere they curse the name of Boris”

The instinctive reaction when one hears of a production of a lesser-known work by a well-known writer tends to be one of healthy scepticism, as one waits to find out whether there was a good reason for its relative obscurity. But sometimes there are mitigating circumstances and Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play Boris Godunov – receiving its first ever professional production in English here at the Swan Theatre – sufficiently provoked the ire of the state censors so that it was 30 years after his death before it was first approved and even then, continued political pressure ensured its limited impact.

The uncensored version was finally translated by Adrian Mitchell, premiered at Princeton in 2007 and selected now by Michael Boyd to mark his swansong as AD at the RSC, as part of the ensemble-led globetrotting A World Elsewhere season. And one can see why the Russian authorities wouldn’t have taken too kindly to Pushkin’s satire, indeed still to this day, as wrapped up in the tale of men lying, cheating and murdering their way to become Tsar in the late 1590s is an excoriating indictment of the Russian ruling elite. And what Boyd teases out in this fast-moving version, is that such autocratic leadership is seemingly endemic in this country and so its resonances play out right up to the current day.


Lloyd Hutchinson is an exhilarating presence as the titular Boris, whose increasingly wearied Ulster tones show the weight of a wrongfully seized crown as rumours swell that he murdered the old Tsar’s young heir Dmitry to secure his own place on the throne; Gethin Anthony has a striking energy as the monk Grigory who later grasps the chance to imitate Dmitry and manipulate his way into the hearts and mind of the people and thus grab power for himself, his quicksilver shifts in mood revealing a thrilling emotional instability; and there’s great work from Lucy Briggs-Owen’s pragmatically covetous Polish princess and from James Tucker and Joe Dixon as key courtiers who never allow anything as small as significant political differences to their leader to get in the way of their own advancement. 

Boyd keeps his staging to a minimum on the thrust stage of the Swan, which highlighted his main conceit of the various costumes from different Russian ages hanging at the back of the stage, the players slowly working their way through the wardrobe to reach the Putin-inspired suits of the final scene. And this motif of the changing clothes also allowed for the production’s most striking moment in its evocation of battle-scenes through the beating of coats on the floor, surprisingly effective in its stirring simplicity and indicative of the extremely tight ensemble. John Woolf’s music has a similar unfussy quality that keeps it hauntingly moving and fans of stage gore won’t be disappointed with some grisly moments.

I was kindly invited as part of a bloggers’ event which meant I was lucky enough to get a Q+A session at the end of the show which was lots of fun and highly illuminating in a number of areas: the reality of the experience of actors in a rep season, the relationship with the audience in the open space of the Swan (which brought to mind something of the groundling experience at the Globe for me), the Shakespearean connections that many others were able to draw with Pushkin’s work, and the interesting note that this wasn’t intended to be a comedy but rather that the black humour came naturally through the process of putting it together. Boris Godunov is indeed funnier than one might expect but it also contains two powerful studies of the corrosive effects of chasing power which are superbly brought to life by Hutchinson and Anthony. 

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)

Programme cost: £4
Booking until 30th March

DVD Review: Charles II The Power and the Passion

“It’s amazing what Parliament will do when they feel guilty”

Charles II: The Power and the Passion was a 2003 BBC miniseries the likes of which I doubt we’ll see again in these times of austerity as it was a sprawlingly lavish costume drama, directed by a young Joe Wright. Covering the life and reign of Charles II, it starts just before his restoration to the throne after the death of Oliver Cromwell and runs right through to his death. Thus as 27 years of history are condensed into 4 hours, liberties and dramatic license is freely taken and this isn’t really the place to be too pernickety about this kind of things.

We follow Charles from his libidinous time in exile on the continent to arriving back in London to be crowned King and to lock horns with Parliament. Charles still believed strongly in the absolute power of the monarchy but the politicians of the day were determined not to surrender any of their new-gained influence and so much struggles ensued as members of his court both grew in influence and fell from favour as everyone jockeys for power and to make sure they’re on the winning side. There is also the matter of the succession as Charles has no legitimate heir, though plenty of illegitimate offspring, and wants his brother named but he is a Catholic. Continue reading “DVD Review: Charles II The Power and the Passion”

Review: Electra, Gate Theatre

“Electra, you need to calm down”

This version of Electra by Nick Payne which is currently playing at the Gate Theatre is brand new, but it does bear some resemblance to the production Elektra, which played, for free, at the Young Vic last summer. That version was by Anne Carson was a co-production with Headlong but is now being labelled the workshop production of this one, as it was also directed by Carrie Cracknell and featured the same creative team around her here, indeed one of the actresses involved has travelled too though Cath Whitefield has been promoted from the chorus to the title role.

Based on Sophocles’ Ancient Greek myth, the story centres on Electra, seething with rage at the murder of her father Agamemnon at the hand of her mother Clytemnestra, who in turn was avenging his sacrifice of another of their daughters, Iphigenia, to appease the gods for a prevailing wind. Electra ships off her younger brother to safety but remains with her mother and new lover, silently plotting for the chance to take the ultimate revenge in the memory of her father and praying for a brother she has not seen for ten years. Continue reading “Review: Electra, Gate Theatre”

DVD Review: Macbeth

This filmed version of Macbeth follows on from the well-received Hamlet, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, that was also captured for posterity but given the filmic treatment rather than just recorded on stage. The entire adult cast, including Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as the murderous couple, from the original Chichester production reunited to film this in high definition in the gloomy tunnels and bunker-like rooms at Walbeck Abbey.

Director Rupert Goold relocates the action to the Cold War Era thus making war-torn Scotland something closer to Stalinist Russia:, the hallmarks of fascism are ever-present with giant posters of the ruler dominating rooms, a police state mentality prevailing with torture used to maintain fear and control over the people as the Macbeths seek to sate their bloodlust and desire for the crown through any means necessary.

I’m not too sure how I feel about Stewart as an actor, something about him just turns me off, but he is undoubtedly impressive here, demonstrating a clinical control over the verse and playing the dictator-like ambition turning to paranoid desperation with conviction. Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth was chillingly effective as the driving force behind this blood-thirsty ambition, portraying a real malevolence that curdles inside her as the loveless marriage begins to crack.

Goold’s assignment of the weird sisters as surgical-masked nurses who are frequently seen around the edges of scenes puts a stronger emphasis on the supernatural side of things, suggesting the ominous inevitability of his fate and perhaps even manipulating it themselves. Polly Frame, Sophie Hunter and Niamh McGrady are all excellent though and the visual and sound effects employed on their performances adds an extra layer of disturbing menace.

As ever, Macduff and Malcolm’s killer scene dragged interminably, but there were nice performances from Tim Treloar as a bookish Ross, Suzanne Burden as the butchered Lady Macduff. But what shines as the biggest benefit to the whole thing is the use of close-ups to really capture the nuances of performances that could well have escaped people on the front row, never mind up in the gods. There’s a level of detail that one is allowed to observe here, that really elevates this from a mere recording of a staged production and demonstrating where this format has a clear value and shouldn’t just be dismissed as ‘no substitute for the real thing’.

Yes, this is not the same thing as going to the theatre but nor is it pretending to be and instead offers an opportunity that couldn’t really be equalled whilst sat in the stalls and made this an interesting and significant thing to watch.

Review: Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s Globe

“You that thus far have come to pity me, hear what I say, and then go home and lose me”

Not having seen Henry VIII before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the second play in the Kings and Rogues season at Shakespeare’s Globe (this was the second preview) and as delightfully coloured cod-pieces and a mightily impressive heaving bosom (bosoms?) emerged in the course of the first act, I suspected we could be in for a right rollicking good time. This play takes place in the middle of Henry’s reign and follows the rise and fall of four important people in his life, the Duke of Buckingham, his first wife Katherine of Aragon, the Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey and Archbishop Cranmer. It mixes up elements of history, tragedy and romance and wraps it all up in the opulent pageantry of the era but it also allows us to see behind the scenes, the gossiping, the politicking and those moments when the mask slips and we see glimpses of the real people behind the public personae.

It is full of stately pomp and circumstance and the set-pieces are visually stunning: Anne Bullen’s procession through the theatre at her coronation, Princess Elizabeth’s christening, even Katherine of Aragon’s trial, all are sumptuously mounted and there are some truly moving moments, especially at the moment of downfall of each of the above-mentioned players. But in truth, Henry VIII plays as a series of episodes rather than a long play and there’s surprisingly little interaction between many of the key characters. This could be to do with the much-debated true authorship of the play, it has been suggested that it was a collaboration between Shakespeare and another playwright John Fletcher, though my knowledge on this is limited to reading the programme notes so I couldn’t possibly come down on one side or the other. Either way, there is much unevenness in this play and as a result it is only fitfully engaging. Continue reading “Review: Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s Globe”