Review: The Country Wife, Minerva

A cracking cast can’t quite make sense of a modern updating of The Country Wife at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre

“What is wit in a wife good for, but to make a man a cuckold?”

How many productions does it take for a playwright to have a moment? We could be on the cusp of a Wycherley wave, with the second production of The Country Wife to arrive this year (the first being at the Southwark Playhouse in April). 

But though this Restoration writer is proving popular, directors seem unable not to tinker with his work – that production was set in the 1920s and Jonathan Munby here moves it even further to the present day, casting new light but also dimming its intent. Continue reading “Review: The Country Wife, Minerva”

Review: Network, National Theatre

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”

 With Network, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film, Ivo van Hove re-asserts his place as one of the premier theatremakers working, anywhere. A satire that managed to predict just how powerful a tool populist anger can be when leveraged effectively, it is transformed into the immersive bustle of a TV studio, that of UBS Evening News where old hack Howard Beale – a transcendent performance by Bryan Cranston – has been handed his notice. Though initially appearing to accept it with good grace, he causes an almighty media stir when he declares, on air, that he’s going to kill himself, triggering a most unlikely rebirth as a truth-spilling ‘prophet’.

And as ever, van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld challenge our notions of theatrical space and how it is used. An onstage restaurant puts (some) audience members right in the thick of the action, the fourth wall gets well and truly shattered, and the use of live video and big screens forces us into the role of active observers – as Beale goes live on air, do you watch Cranston himself, do you watch him onscreen, do you watch the team observing him from the producers’ box…the multiplicity of perspectives reminds us how easy it is to manipulate media, how there can always be other sides to the story. Continue reading “Review: Network, National Theatre”

TV Review: Will, Episodes 1 + 2

“You are a curiosity”

American versions of Shakespeare (whether his plays or the man himself) are always worth looking up, even if only for a chuckle and new TNT TV series Will is certainly no exception. There’s some weight behind it – it was created by Craig Pearce, the longtime writing partner of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and has Shekhar Kapur, who directed the award-winning Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, directing and executive producing and in the role of the Bard himself, there’s a potentially star-making role for British newcomer Laurie Davidson.

I watched the first two episodes and they sure make an arresting introduction. You feel Luhrmann’s influence almost immediately as this is no antiquated version of a sedate Elizabethan London, but rather it is one shot through with bright colours and a punk-filled attitude. Literally so, as they have conceived the burgeoning theatre scene of the time as being akin to the contemporary(ish) world of punk rock – theatres filled with patrons in leather and mohicans, the soundtrack filled with the Clash and drunken singalongs to Lou Reed.  Continue reading “TV Review: Will, Episodes 1 + 2”

Review: The Red Barn, National

“It’s as if I have lived my whole life with the handbrake on”

On booking for The Red Barn, you’re advised that “due to the tense nature of the play, there will be no re-admittance”. The play – written by David Hare from the 1968 novel La Main by Georges Simenon – is also described as a psychological thriller on the website. It all adds up to a certain degree of expectation about what kind of show it is one is going to see and even though this isn’t my first time at the rodeo, I’ve seen a few shows and know the danger of anticipation, it is often hard not to carry the weight of those expectations with you as you take your seat.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that Robert Icke’s production of The Red Barn was not the play I thought it would be. And that my initial slightly cool reaction was as much a response to that as it was to the material itself. Set in the depths of a Connecticut winter, two couples make their way home from a party and when one of the men doesn’t make it back, it is the consequences of that that makes up the meat of the play. Specifically, it’s how the other man of the group reacts, both right then and from then on, that Simenon and Hare and Icke probe into. Continue reading “Review: The Red Barn, National”

Review: Waste, National Theatre

“The stateman’s task is the accommodation of stubborn facts to shifting circumstance and in effect to the practical capacities of the average stupid man. Democracy involves admission of that”

It’s always a bit tough to forge one’s own opinion of something already lauded as a masterpiece, the assumption being if you don’t like it then you’re missing something, but this is the second time I’ve seen a solidly good production of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste and it’s the second time that I just haven’t been blown away by it. Seven years ago saw Samuel West tackle it for the Almeida and now it is Roger Michell’s turn in the Lyttelton as Rufus Norris continues his balancing act of reinvigorating the National Theatre without scaring the regulars off.

But spread over a goodly three hours with a pace that could be described as stately at best and glacial at its worst, it’s hard to see Waste converting any newcomers to the joys of theatre. And even with the quality that emanates from the female-centric first scene – Olivia Williams, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Doreen Mantle and Lucy Robinson (forever in my heart as my first Lady Macbeth) doing fine work – the energy is just singularly lacking even as sex, sleaze and suicide pop up on the menu for this slice of the Edwardian political elite.  Continue reading “Review: Waste, National Theatre”

DVD Review: Da Vinci’s Demons Series 1

“War has always been the handmaiden of progress”

From its opening moments of buttocks and blood (both belonging to an uncredited Hugh Bonneville if that floats your boat), it’s clear that Da Vinci’s Demons is going to have its fun whilst playing fast and loose with the early life of its subject, Florentine polymath Leonardo Da Vinci. Conceived by David S Goyer and a co-production between Starz and BBC Worldwide, it’s a good-natured romp of a drama series much in the mould of Merlin, Atlantis or the lamented Sinbad but perhaps tied a little closer to reality as it dips in and out of the tangled history of the Italian city states. 

And it is its historical connections that serves as a main driver for the technological innovations for which Leonardo is famed and which form the ‘issue of the week’ around which most of the episodes hang. So as Da Vinci climbs into bed with the ruling Medici family, he’s sucked into their political machinations whilst battling rival families in Florence and the ever-present threat of the Catholic Church in Rome. Alongside this sits a more fantastical series-long arc about the mystical Book of Leaves and the Sons of Mithras who believe Da Vinci has only just begun to tap into his true power. Continue reading “DVD Review: Da Vinci’s Demons Series 1”

DVD Review: U Be Dead (2009)

“We’ve been getting phone calls, text messages, emails…can’t trace where or who from”

Another drama about online shenanigans, as should be evident from the titular ‘U’, U Be Dead is an ITV television movie from 2009 and written by Gwyneth Hughes. Jan and Debra are in the midst of preparing for a lavish wedding but when they start to receive threatening messages and anonymous phone calls as part of a systematic campaign of harassment, their lives are thrown into complete turmoil. 

It’s all a bit schlocky to be completely honest (but then it is ITV) though there are some strong performances that shine through. Tara Fitzgerald unravels spectacularly as Debra, the target of the most vitriolic aspects of the stalking and clearly far too good for David Morrissey’s rather taciturn psychiatrist/speedboat racer, whose head is easily turned by pert new arrival Bethan played by Lucy Griffith, even in the midst of the crisis. Continue reading “DVD Review: U Be Dead (2009)”

Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Old Vic

“He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age”

There was certainly a raised eyebrow or 3 when it was announced that the leads in Mark Rylance’s take on Much Ado About Nothing for the Old Vic would be Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. Neither have previously taken on the roles of the warring Beatrice and Benedick and having worked together recently on Driving Miss Daisy (which others liked even if I didn’t), their’s is a pairing with history. But undoubted quality aside, it is a brave move to cast so daringly and with a production that relocates Shakespeare’s play to England in 1944. 

Does it work? Making the Aragonese soldiers into a company of GIs has a visual impact that works well and turning Sigh No More into a bluesy harmonica-driven ditty is inspired. But putting Shakespeare’s language into the mouths of American soldiers doesn’t always work “my Lord…” and without wanting to open too far the can of worms that is the subject of race, I’m not so sure the lack of comment on a 1940s inter-racial marriage, never mind the issues of honour flung about later, really flies. Messina as the home front is neat though, making the Watch a Dad’s Army-style collection of ragbags and kids (including one called Beryl, maybe?). 

Continue reading “Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Old Vic”

DVD Review: Small Island

“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”

Review: The Audience, Gielgud

“It is the flow of information from one institution to another”

Helen Mirren took home the Academy Award in 2006 for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s film The Queen, so it was perhaps a bit of a surprise that her reprisal of the role was announced to take place on the stage of the Gielgud Theatre in The Audience, a new play written by Morgan and directed by Stephen Daldry. The Audience centres on the custom for the reigning monarch to meet their Prime Minister every week at Buckingham Palace, a meeting which is held in complete privacy, and it is this that Morgan has seized upon. The play has just started previews and opens officially on 5th March.

He imagines how some of these audiences might have gone, with strong political characters and epochal events of the second half of the twentieth century passing through and the Queen being the only constant, though not unchanging. There have been 12 Prime Ministers during the Queen’s reign so far, 8 are featured here and even some of those are just fleeting appearances. But Morgan’s selectiveness and use of a non-chronological ordering pays huge dividends in the development of the play and of the Queen as a dramatic character.  Continue reading “Review: The Audience, Gielgud”