Review: Macbeth, National Theatre

Rory Kinnear as Macbeth, Beatrice Scirocchi as Witch and Anna-Maria Nabirye as Witch in Macbeth at the National Theatre (c) Brinkhoff Mögenburg 1002-1006

A whole lot of post-apocalyptic hurly-burly and sadly not much more besides – the National Theatre’s Macbeth really is something of a red-trousered disappointment 

“You have displaced the mirth”

Brexit has ruined Britain. The war of the Scottish Secession has laid ruin to much of the land north of Hadrian’s Wall. The lawless society that has resulted is a place where people once again use plastic bags willy-nilly (for tidying up after beheadings, as party hats – take your pick), where no-one has a mobile phone (presumably because roaming charges have been re-introduced), where the Look at my fucking red trousers meme has translated into despotic rule.

Such is the world of Rufus Norris’ Macbeth which is set ‘now, after a civil war’, hence my slight embellishment of said setting. I should add that I thought of much of this while watching the production, an indication of the level of engagement that it managed to exert. It wasn’t always thus – a bloody prologue is viscerally and effectively done and the entrance of the witches has a genuine chill to its strangeness. Continue reading “Review: Macbeth, National Theatre”

Review: Antigone, Barbican

“I heard a voice, like the sound of sorrow

A
fter the huge success of A View From The Bridge (now successfully transferred into the West End), there’s no doubting that Belgian director Ivo van Hove has been sucked into the mainstream consciousness of British theatregoers, hence this sold out run of Antigone at the Barbican. The presence of Oscar winner Juliette Binoche probably helped in that regard but there’s clearly no dimming in the sense of ambition here as this pan-European work, produced by…(deep breath)…the Barbican and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, in association with Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and co-produced by Théâtre de la Ville-Paris, Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen and Edinburgh International Festival, launches an eight month tour across Europe and the USA.


So it’s now the turn of Greek tragedy to get the van Hove treatment, Sophokles’ play has received a new translation here by Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson which instantly elevates the work into a realm of heightened theatricality as the coils of its language wind elegantly around the ongoing troubles of this royal family. In the aftermath of a civil war in which the sons of Oidipous, Eteokles and Polyneikes, have killed each other fighting over the right to rule Thebes, it is Kreon – the brother of his wife (and mother) Jocasta – who takes the throne. Grieving for the loss of his own son, Kreon institutes a newly authoritarian rule, one which declares Polyneikes a traitor and thus unable to receive burial rites and this incenses Oidipous’ daughter Antigone and the pursuit of honouring her brother puts them in direct conflict.
For all its loftier philosophical musings about the role of the state, the possibilities of a higher law and the ethics of civil disobedience, this Antigone finds its power in the personal, in the terrible intimacy of people not being able to grieve for their loved ones in the manner to which they are accustomed. The death of nearly 200 Dutch people in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the Ukraine resonated strongly with van Hove, indeed directly affecting his Toneelgroep company, and there’s something of both the raw anger in Binoche’s performance of the anguished Antigone, but also the determination to do ‘the right thing’, to reclaim dignity and respect in the face of death. The melodiousness of Binoche’s voice is beautifully weighted by the depth of her sorrow and she revels in the intensity here, daring anyone, everyone, to look away from her unfaltering gaze.
Something van Hove excels in is his acute sense of spatial onstage geography, the positioning of each actor is crucially pin-sharp and often says as much about the relationships between the characters than their words – this is particularly true of the always-present Chorus here. See how arrange themselves to listen to Patrick O’Kane’s Kreon speak of his new rule of law and contrast it with where they end up once Tiresias arrives to rain doom them all (and whether deliberate or not, I loved the call-out to this iconic reaction shot). Likewise, the fierce emotion of the interactions of Kreon and his son Haimon (an excellent Samuel Edward-Cook) and of Antigone and her sister Ismene (a beautifully poised Kirsty Bushell) finds elegant echoes rippling through the fabric of the show, reiterating the enduring power of the family bond even under extreme duress.
Long-time collaborator Jan Versweyveld takes on designing duties for set and lighting once again and creates some gorgeous tableaux – the windswept vista of the opening scene, the haunting bird’s-eye view into the tomb, the stark simplicity of the celestial circle of light that dominates the set – it all looks sensational. Daniel Freitag’s sound design murmurs and bubbles under with a slowly building sense of ominous foreboding and there’s fascinating video work from Tal Yarden which is at its best when filling the back wall with an amorphous mass of barely-discernible figures, a haunting suggestion of the city where they all live. When it comes into focus though, the desert landscape where Polyneikes’ body lies and the modern metropolitan hustle and bustle of Thebes (soundtracked to The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’) itself felt distractingly contradictory. 
So perhaps not the epic experience of A View From The Bridge or Maria Stuart, or the sheer audacity of Scenes From A Marriage or The Roman Tragedies but Ivo van Hove at 95% is still one of the best nights you can ask for in a theatre. With Binoche in such fine form – the moment when she skipped to the front of the stage and perched on the edge just mere metres away from me was heart-stoppingly brilliant (and mostly made up for the fact that the front row should probably be labelled restricted view) – and a fiercely committed company around her (Finbar Lynch, an elegiac Kathryn Pogson and a beautifully spoken Obi Abili complete the ensemble), this is powerful stuff indeed. It may be being filmed by broadcast soon but it is worth stalking the Barbican website for returns and experiencing this exquisite agony in person.
Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £4
Photos: Jan Versweyveld
Booking until 28th March, then touring to: deSingel, Antwerp; Stadschouwburg Amsterdam; Théâtre de la Ville-Paris; Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen; Edinburgh International Festival; Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York; Carolina Performing Arts, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; University Musical Society/Power Centre for the Performing Arts, Ann Arbor Michigan; and Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. It’s also being filmed by BBC ARTS to be broadcast this spring as part of BBC Four’s Classical Greece season

2015 Offie Award Winners

Offies Awards - Off West End Theatre Awards

Best Female
Linda Bassett for Visitors at The Bush and the Arcola Theatre
Laura Jane Matthewson for Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse 
Shannon Tarbet for The Edge Of Our Bodies at The Gate

Best Supporting Female
Leila Crerar for Martine at Finborough Theatre
Vicki Lee Taylor for Carousel at Arcola Theatre
Thea Jo Wolfe for Singing In The Rain at Upstairs At The Gatehouse

Best Male
Patrick O’Kane for Quietly at Soho Theatre
Harry Lloyd for Notes From Underground at The Print Room, Coronet
Robin Soans For Visitors at the Bush and Arcola Theatre Continue reading “2015 Offie Award Winners”

2015 Offie Award Finalists

Offies Awards - Off West End Theatre Awards

Best Female
Linda Bassett for Visitors at The Bush and the Arcola Theatre
Laura Jane Matthewson for Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse 
Shannon Tarbet for The Edge Of Our Bodies at The Gate

Best Supporting Female
Leila Crerar for Martine at Finborough Theatre
Vicki Lee Taylor for Carousel at Arcola Theatre
Thea Jo Wolfe for Singing In The Rain at Upstairs At The Gatehouse

Best Male
Patrick O’Kane for Quietly at Soho Theatre
Harry Lloyd for Notes From Underground at The Print Room, Coronet
Robin Soans For Visitors at the Bush and Arcola Theatre Continue reading “2015 Offie Award Finalists”

Review: Quietly, Soho Theatre

“Everything inside was blown outside”

Something of a shame as this was the final performance of Owen McCafferty’s Quietly at the Soho Theatre and it turned out to be quite the doozy. A £5 ticket deal sweetened the deal and in a neat twist, a game of international football started just as one in the play did (although it was Belgium vs Russia, as opposed to the Northern Ireland v Poland game of the script). In that Belfast bar, Jimmy is shooting the breeze with Polish barman Robert – the playwright capturing excellently a natural flow of dialogue which continues throughout the whole play – ruminating over what trouble there’ll be on the street if the result doesn’t go the right way.

But Jimmy has bigger things on his mind as is clear when another man, Ian, enters and he headbutts him to the ground. Thus the scene is set for the slow unfolding of the tangled history between the pair, on opposite sides of the religious divide but yet connected in the deepest of ways and McCafferty brilliantly uncoils his plot with a great subtlety. The ‘quietly’ of the title should not be underestimated as after that initial outburst of violence, the physical aspect is then quietened as an eerie stillness descends on the pub as a process of truth and reconciliation is attempted to acknowledge the devastating events of the past.

The writing aches with authenticity and sincerity, the aching anguish that comes from such entrenched hatred as the Troubles resonating with a horrible truth and the recognition that moving on, moving past it is a near-impossible job, especially when so many wounds of the conflict are still felt so keenly. But McCafferty has done well to find a point where these two men have found the necessity of doing just that. Patrick O’Kane is breathtakingly good as Jimmy, constantly on a knife edge as the past threatens to overwhelm him, Declan Conlon’s guilt-ridden Ian is a well-judged foil and Robert Zawadzki’s barman is a crucial third acting both as witness and pointer to the future where intolerance has moved on beyond the emerald isle. 


Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)

Booking until 22nd June

Review: The Crucible, Open Air Theatre

“I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you”
It really is a good time to be an Arthur Miller fan in London: All My Sons is receiving rave reviews at the Apollo Theatre and now you can see The Crucible at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in a chilling new production of a play.
The Puritans of Salem, Massachusetts are shocked when a group of their young girls are caught dancing in the woods and one of them falls into a coma. Accusations of witchcraft soon start to fly and as the hysteria mounts and a full-blown witch-hunt ensues, vendettas about land and money, and also of the heart, are pursued sub rosa as events snowball to a shockingly brutal conclusion. The struggle between truth and righteousness, between protecting self-interest and rising to the need of the greater good, is personified in the Proctor family, John and Elizabeth.

Although written at the time of the McCarthyite anti-American witch-hunts, much of what it concerns struck me as so relevant to us today. The rampant intolerance, the “you’re either with us or against us” mentality, the dangers of social groups coming together to defend their interests against all others, even the struggles of John and Elizabeth to communicate effectively as husband and wife, all remain pertinent even as it is presented to us in seventeenth century dress. 

It helps of course that it has been cast extremely well, Patrick O’Kane’s wild-haired John Proctor suggests some of Christopher Ecclestone’s level of intensity, fiercely independent but plagued by the conflicting desires to save his wife but also to do the right thing, finally finding serenity in his ultimate decision. Emma Cunniffe is super, playing Goodie Proctor with a tightly coiled restraint marked by sudden bursts of passion or grief that are all the more effective for their unexpectedness And Bettrys Jones as Mary Warren, the Proctors’ maid whose testimony could sway the outcome of the entire accusation of witchcraft is also excellent with a convincing performance.
The company of girls from the East15 acting school do a great job as vengeful observers throughout the majority of the play, sat around the edge of the stage their combined influence is quite chilling, as they turn and point to the individual women who are accused, chanting names in a very sinister manner and in the courtroom scene when they fall under the ‘influence’ of Mary Warren, their collective hysteria is genuinely disturbing. Led by the merciless Abigail Williams, played here with a vicious stone-facedness by Emily Taaffe, I’m quite glad I saw it in the daytime as they’re not girls you’d want to meet in the dark!
There is a real sense of the enormity of what is happening and the creeping realisation that things are going too far, explicitly through Philip Cumbus’ appalled Reverend Hale but also displayed brilliantly by two of the more minor supporting roles. Paul Kemp as Ezekiel Cheever and Gary Milner as Marshall Herrick both did excellently in recognising the horror of what they were complicit in doing but also the futility of trying to stop it, painfully exemplified through the physical deterioration wrought on Susan Engel’s Rebecca Nurse. It’s also evident even in Taaffe’s anguish as Proctor is led to prison, her twisted games have finally gone too far.
The staging is simple, the floor is actually the front wall of a house and little touches like a bed (which ruined my sightline for the first scene) and a cauldron rise up periodically. Striving for historical accuracy with the multitude of accents that would have still persisted in the still relatively newly established settlement is a step I would have avoided as it is really quite distracting for the larger part of the first half, you just have no idea what each new character is going to sound like. And a couple of the townsmen over-egged their accusatory scenes, a little more subtlety might not have gone amiss there.
A friend of mine went the night before and after comparing notes, we agreed that you should definitely go and see this at night-time. The flaming torches sound perfect and although the atmosphere was wonderfully tense even in the blazing sunshine of the matinee, it can only be enhanced by watching this as the sun goes down. Whilst not the five-star success that is All My Sons (but then again, I don’t think anything else I see this year will be), I’d definitely give this a worthy four stars and if the weather holds out for you, a lovely way to spend a warm early summer evening.
Running time: 3 hours
Programme cost: £4