Review: Julius Caesar, Bridge

 
“He thinks too much – such men are dangerous”
 
Though it is billed as ‘a promenade staging’ and the website refers to ‘mob tickets’ and ‘immersive ticket holders’, make no mistake that if you’re in the pit for Julius Caesar, you’re standing. For two hours. There’s a bit of movement, as in five paces that way or this when a new bit of the set has to wheeled into place but don’t be distracted into thinking there’s anything more on offer here than can be gotten further along the South Bank at the Globe (apart from a roof of course, which allows them to charge five times the price, or three times if you book your tickets via TodayTix).

 
And as with being a groundling, there are decided pros and cons to experiencing theatre this way. The first half of Shakespeare’s political thriller works extremely well under this modern-dress treatment from Nicholas Hytner. As you enter the Bridge’s auditorium, reconceived into the round here, the pit is filled with a rock gig, vendors sell beer and baseball caps, a febrile energy fills the space which carries through to the arrival of David Calder’s populist Caesar with his red cap and puerile slogan ‘Do this!’ (Contemporary allusions are clear but later on you may find the mind gets weirdly drawn to Murdoch more than Trump…).

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Film Review: Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

“I know your moustache…”

 

What to do when you want your new film to be a new version of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous whodunnits? Well if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you call in some of your mates to play the main characters, friends like Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad, and Willem Dafoe. Plus you can also get some real talent to fill the minor roles – blink and you might miss the likes of Paapa Essiedu, Miranda Raison, Hadley Fraser, Adam Garcia, even Sergei Polunin.

But if you’re Kenneth Branagh, you also cast yourself as Hercule Poirot and as he’s directing himself, there’s a sense that the sharing of some much-needed constructive feedback didn’t happen. For as his ridiculously huge moustache is placed front and centre in scene after scene, this Murder On The Orient Express feels nothing so much as a vanity project. Which is all well and good if you like that sort of thing, and I quite like Branagh as it happens, but it is absolutely fatal in a story that is intrinsically about the ensemble.

Branagh is clearly invested in giving us an in-depth look into M Poirot’s psyche but by allowing him to dominate the narrative so, he neglects to pay the many other characters the attention they need for us to fully invest in the emotional stakes of each of their situations. For that’s a rather important aspect here and one that would keep the storytelling much more engaging, well before the finale finally grabs our attention. As it is, it all ends up rather dull, glamorous window-dressing in pointlessly ugly CGI settings, narrative clarity sacrificed for tricksy camera angles.

Photos: Allstar/20th Century Fox

 

 

Full cast of the Bridge Theatre’s Julius Caesar announced

The full cast for the Bridge Theatre’s second production – a promenade version of Julius Caesar – has been announced and obviously the news that Adjoa Andoh will be playing Casca is the bee’s knees.

The company is: Adjoa Andoh (Casca), David Calder (Caesar), Leaphia Darko (ensemble), Rosie Ede (Marullus/ Artemidorus), Michelle Fairley (Cassius), Leila Farzad (Decius Brutus), Fred Fergus (Lucius/Cinna the Poet), Zachary Hart (ensemble), Wendy Kweh (Calpurnia), David Morrissey (Mark Antony), Mark Penfold (Caius Ligarius), Abraham Popoola (Trebonius), Sid Sagar (Flavius/Popilius Lena), Nick Sampson (Cinna), Hannah Stokely (Metellus Cimber), Ben Whishaw (Brutus) and Kit Young (Octavius).

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.

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Review: Queen Anne, Theatre Royal Haymarket

“Lie down madam and legs apart

Now brace yourself for this may smart”
Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne played a well-received run at the RSC the winter before last and it has now transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket for a summer season. It contains two excellent performances from Romola Garai as Sarah Churchill (stepping into the role created by Natasha McElhone) and Emma Cunniffe as the titular monarch and you can read my four star review for Cheap Theatre Tickets right here.
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 30th September

TV Review: The Hollow Crown – The Wars of the Roses: 3. Richard III

“The king’s name is a tower of strength”

The Hollow Crown reaches its climax with a solid and occasionally very strong Richard III which once again shimmers with quality and hints of artistic innovation. And for all the lauding of Benedict Cumberbatch’s starring role, it is pleasing to see Dominic Cooke and Ben Power give Sophie Okonedo’s excoriating Margaret of Anjou her due as one of the real pleasures of running these plays together is to trace her complete arc (for she’s the only character to appear in them all) and root her enmity – alongside that of so many others – in something most palpable.

Cooke’s direction also benefits from loosening its representational restraints, Richard III’s monologues and asides make this a different type of play and Cooke responds with a series of interesting choices (though the surfeit of nervy finger-tapping was a touch too much for me) making great use of both gloomy interiors and hauntingly effective exteriors. Playing so many scenes in woodlands was an inspired decision as it leant a real eeriness to proceedings, whether Margaret or Richard bursting from the bushes to disrupt the private mourning of Elizabeth or Anne. Continue reading “TV Review: The Hollow Crown – The Wars of the Roses: 3. Richard III”

Review: Cymbeline, Sam Wanamaker

“Fear no more the frown o’ the great”
 
You wait for a production of relatively little-performed Shakespeare play and then three come along in the same year. Melly Still is doing Cymbeline for the RSC in the summer, Emma Rice is reclaiming and renaming it Imogen for her inaugural season at the Globe and inside at the same venue, it is being performed as part of a run of the Bard’s late plays in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, directed by Sam Yates.
 
Ah yes, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I’ve not been much of a fan of this theatre, for purely practical reasons rather than artistic ones, but with this programming that has allowed me to tick off Pericles and see Rachael Stirling, Niamh Cusack and John Light onstage, I’ve succumbed to a rash of bookings. With that, I’ve opted to be brutally honest about the experiences as a paying customer.

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Review: The Oresteia, Shakespeare’s Globe

“Why must we go over and over the woes of the past?”

There’s something a little unfortunate about labelling your version of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia as “a radical reinvention” when Robert Icke’s extraordinary reinterpretation of the same source material for the Almeida has now successfully transferred to the West End. Nevertheless, Rory Mullarkey’s adaptation for Shakespeare’s Globe also emerges as something rather arresting, not least in director Adele Thomas’ canny use of creatives pushing well outside the visual (and aural) aesthetic normally associated with this venue.

Hannah Clark’s design pulls on a wide range of influences to provide a wealth of striking images – niche cinema like Angelopolous’ The Travelling Players (the almost shifty looking Chorus) and Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain (Clytemnestra’s magnificent posturing) mix with contemporary security uniforms (the opening messenger) and traditional Greek costumery as we know it (Agamemnon’s battle-dress). Along with Mira Calix’s diverse (including electronics) score, it’s an eclectic mix to be sure but one that pays off to create an out-of-time strangeness which really suits the production.
Mullarkey’s textual adaptation is also an unwieldly collation of disparate elements, poetic rhythm slips into modern-day colloquialisms, epic speeches slides into operatic sung passages. The shifts may be a little jarring at times but again the cumulative effect is rather impressive. The three acts follow the woes of the House of Atreus – Agamemnon sees the war veteran suffer at the vengeful hands of his wife Clytemnestra for sacrificing their daughter, The Libation Bearers sees her suffer at the hands of her son for killing his dad and The Eumenides pops him on trial and established trial by jury, as you do.

It’s a strong telling of the story but with little that was revelatory for me. Where Icke succeeded for me was in placing Iphigenia’s murder at the heart of it all, with the toxicity of everyone’s grief spilling from that point. Here, Katy Stephens’ wonderfully wild-eyed mother is given no such backstory, she’s right in there topping George Irving as Agamemnon and Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s powerfully voiced Cassandra and likewise Joel McCormack’s Orestes returning the favour in part two (after some strange Thriller video-influenced moments) – the mirroring of their bloody actions is cleverly done too.

The final part loses a little of the driving momentum, Branka Katic’s sonorous voice as Athena is beguiling but the overall feel of the trial is a little muted (the jury for example lack impact, especially compared to the excellently creepy three-faced masks that have come before) and disconnected. But by the time the priapic wonders of the final parade commerce, the quality of mercy advocated by the goddess kicks in and one can appreciate one of the more visually stunning shows of the year. 


Running time: 3 hours (with 2 intervals)
Photos: Robert Day
Booking until 16th October

Review: Eternal Love, Cambridge Arts Theatre

“If you marry me you’ll never be a candidate for the Vatican”

Originally seen at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2006 and 2007 as In Extremis, Howard Brenton’s newly retitled Eternal Love marks the 21st birthday year of English Touring Theatre and the first instalment in a three-year-long project to tour quality drama across the country. On a personal note, it also saw my first ever visit to Cambridge (too brief for my liking, I look forward to a return) and the Cambridge Arts Theatre (very friendly, I like the fact I found the bar before I found the box office!).

The retitling offers a further clue to its subject matter in a subtitle The Story of Abelard and Heloise but in some ways, this feels a little bit of a misnomer. For though the enduring love story between the medieval theologian Peter Abelard and his fearsomely intelligent student Heloise is a central part of the play, Brenton also focuses on the key philosophical debate of the time, as intense rival Bernard of Clairvaux declares his determination to defeat this heretical foe and maintain the doctrine of absolute faith.

And it is this fervour that becomes the most striking element of John Dove’s production. There’s definite chemistry between David Sturzaker’s Abelard and Jo Herbert’s Heloise (how could there not be…) but the real fire in their eyes burns when they are intellectually stimulated as well. Abelard’s glee at wrong-footing his teachers in logical argument, Heloise’s fierce assertions of independence from her guardian uncle and in turn, the same from Sam Crane’s marvellous mystic Bernard, almost shaking with righteous zeal and foot-licking dedication. All three actors utterly convince that their beliefs are nothing less than cast-iron.


Brenton never shies away from showing us the damage that such certainties cause – on all sides – finding a remarkable sense of balance in its arguments and ensuring that there’s no easy division of hero/villain. The only true victim turns out to be the unseen child of this union, packed off to be raised by Abelard’s sister, and not just because he was named Astrolabe. Comic relief is provided by the wryly-played double act of John Cummins and William Mannering and there’s deeply felt work from Rhiannon Oliver too.


Michael Taylor’s design recreates the simple staging ethos of the Globe through which Dove weaves a sinuous flow of pace; William Lyons’ band of three musicians create a gorgeous soundscape from high up back, the three main songs of the evening proving a highlight; and Hilary Lewis’ costume work is just excellent, the court scenes particularly sumptuous. Eternal Love is nothing so straightforward as a love story, it asks you to consider how far we could or should go in pushing the extremes of belief, no matter the consequences either politically or personally. 

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 8th February then touring to Truro, Wolverhampton, Darlington, Blackpool, Edinburgh, Malvern, Brighton and Canterbury