Category Archives: london

Fourteen Plays in fourteen days

I recently spent two weeks in London and managed to see fourteen plays in fourteen days, spending the meagre sum of 127 pounds on them, mainly for day seats in the first row or for standing. Here is the overview of the plays I’ve seen where:

NT: 5,  Globe: 3, Royal Court: 2, Donmar: 1, Wyndhams: 1, Duchess: 1, Old Vic Tunnels: 1

Since both “Chicken Soup with Barley” in the Royal Court and “Luise Miller” in the Donmar have finished, I won’t review them but they were superb!

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Review: Philistines by Maxim Gorki in the National Theatre

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Lyttelton Theatre in the National Theatre, runs until August 18. Director Howard Davies. Cast includes Phil Davies, Ruth Wilson, Rory Kinnear, Conleth Hill, Mark Bonnar, Justine Mitchell

Dysfunctional families engaging in argument and political discussion are all en vogue on the  London stage at the moment. The Royal Court gives us a contemporary American family in “The Pain and the Itch” whereas the National Theatre presents us with its equivalent in pre-revolutionary Russia in “Philistines”. What both plays have in common is that the members of their households continously argue with each other – and  that in outstanding brilliant dialogue. Maxim Gorki’s play has been ingeniously translated and updated by Andrew Upton (Mr Cate Blanchett to you) who gives a certain zing to even the most elaborate of Gorki’s phrases.

Everything in this play is movement and conflict as the different members of the Bessemenov household come through different doors and stairs, collide with each other in argument and go out again. In one memorable scene, after the botched suicide attempt of the daughter, the door to her room hardly ever closes as people rush in and out while from the front door curious members of the public rush in to see what has happened. Talk becomes discordant as people interrupt each other or play on the piano while someone else is talking. There is hardly a scene of dialogue  between two characters  where not a third charcters is involved in something completely different, even if it is just the carrying in of a heavy samovar. Howard Davies has beautifully orchestratesd this cacophony of different voices. The household is ruled by the dominant self-made man Vassilly (an outstanding Phil Davis who manages to give a thoroughly unpleasant character a human face) who only believes in materialism and status in life. Pitched against him is his idealistic foster-son Nil (played by a fiery Mark Bonnar) , a socialist activist, who believes you can change the world if only your will is strong enough. Standing between them are Vassilly’s children Pyotr and Tanya. Pyotr (a wonderful Rory Kinnear seething with frustration and anger) is a disillusioned law student who got suspended for revolutionary activities. Unable to embrace or completely reject his father’s materialism and Nil’s idealism and with his professinal future eclipsed, he evidently is stuck in this house. His sister Tanya ( a heartbreaking Ruth Wilson) is even more trapped than him, unable to fly a nest where neither her domineering father or Nil are able to love her. Surrounding them are a host of lodgers and servants such as the drunken nihilist Teterev (Conleth Hill) with a cynical view on life who probably has some of the best lines in the whole play and the widowed party-girl with revolutionary tendencies, Elena ( played with dry wit by Justine Mitchell). In the end, Vassilly betrays the revolutionary friends of his children to the police and both Nil and Pyotr are fleeing the flat with their prospective spouses, leaving a vulnerable Tanya in the clutches of her parents.

The first time I saw the play as a preview I was struck how moving and dynamic the play is under Howard Davies direction and a thoroughly strong performance through the ensemble cast.  The tragic underbelly of the play is lightened up by sarcastic wit and romantic entanglements. And how wonderfully flawed the characters are! Phil Davies’ Vassilly is a greedy, corrupt and anti-Semitic patriarch whose explosive fits of rage hide his vulnerability and feelings of inferiority towards his children.  Tanya is a tragic figure with a twist as she torments the servant girl Polya for her romanticism and being loved by Nil who in his turn has no qualms in leaving Tanya in despair after she witnessed their romantic encounter. Pyotr leaves his suicidal sister to enjoy the love of Elena who is amazingly cold hearted when it comes to other people’s pains: ” There’s a type of person seems to bring it on themselves…all they do is whinge…how alone they are and how dark and pointless life is and I just – Those people, I can’t help myself, I want them to be unhappy. I just. Do.” The play is like a dramatisation of W.H Auden poem “Musee de Beaux Arts” which states that suffering “takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

Watching the play a second time a few days ago, I could however understand a recent review that this is a “five star production of a three star play”. The ending is strangely flat. After Nil has left with Polya, you expect the long awaited final confrontation between Pyotr and his father. It starts promising enough with the frustrated Pyotr in full flow:”What are you trying to say?… That I owe you? that I obey, like what? An employee?  There are no more serfs. There is no more of this…what you think. What you imagine. Blind obedience. It’s not like that anymore.” And then nothing.  Neither father and son are able to defend their point. Pyotr virtually shuts up after stuttering that he wants to marry Elena as if he was Hermia and Helena in the final act of “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. And that from a character whose eloquence was evident in phrases like “hearing him, you’d think life was like some long-lost American uncle who will shower you with unexpected wealth” and who lectures his revolutionary friends on the futility of their tasks.  It is as if Gorky suddenly lost interest in the character and his conflict with his father which is all the more damaging to the play as Pyotr in his disillusionment towards both capitalism and socialism is a close contemporary of ours and probably the character we most identify with. It is left to Elena to give the final speech of the couple to Vassilly and his wife – and in Andrew Upton’s modernised version this ends rather crudely as “I will fuck him. All the time.”

Still, this is one of must-see productions of the year…

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Filed under howard davies, justine mitchell, london, mark bonnear, maxim gorky, national theatre, phil davies, philistines, review, rory kinnear, ruth wilson, theatre

Review: The Hothouse by Harold Pinter in the National Theatre

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 Lyttelton Theatre in the National Theatre, until Sept 4. Director: Ian Rickson. Cast includes Stephen Moore, Finbar Lynch, Leo Bill, Lia Williams, Paul Ritter

The Hothouse, which is currently previewing in the National Theatre, is one of Pinters earliest plays but has been sitting in a drawer for 20-odd  years until performed in 1980 for the first time.  It has been called “Pinter’s funniest play” – but knowing Pinter one shouldn’t expect lots of thigh-slapping humour. The fun is here as sharp as the knives that are drawn in one scene. It is set in a sanatorium on a particular warm Christmas Day, “when the snow has turned to slush”. The place is run by the autocratic and forgetful Roote and his steely assistant Gibbs who refer to their patients not with names but with numbers. Recently, a patient has died and another has given birth and Gibbs is asked to find the father. His unique measures of interrogation set off a chain of events that turn from Kafkaesque absurdity to surrealistic apocalypse.

Ian Rickson  – in his first production after leaving as Artistic Director of the Royal Court – sets the play firmly in the period when it was written. There are ill-fitting suits, shell-rimmed glasses and those strange pointy bras that women were wearing back then. Hildegard Bechtler’s wonderful set manages to evoke the 50’s in all their functionality and shabbiness down to the smallest detail. And the acting is simply marvellous. Finbar Lynch as Gibbs is the embodiment of the ambitious and deviant bureaucrat who can hardly hide his contempt for his ineffecient boss. Paul Ritter as the insolent Lush is a comic delight and Leo Bill as the victimized Lamb proves once more what a subtle and moving actor he is. Stephen Moore’s performance as Roote was seriously impaired in the preview I saw by the fact that he forgot several of his lines and had to be helped by the audible whisper of the prompter. Each time it happened, the audience draw in their breath: would he or wouldn’t he remember the lines? Fortunately as the play progressed, he turned into top form. But the real star is the language and the unexpected gags. Turning from sarcastic dialogue to homeopathic doses of slapstick this play is unashamedly funny. When Lush refuses the Christmas cake he is offered,  Roote retorts “You’ve insulted me, You’ve insulted the cook, and you’ve insulted Jesus Christ”.

Certainly not Pinters most polished play and a bit flagging in the second half but I had a wonderful evening. Highly recommended.  A quick note on the seating: try to avoid the first few rows, especially on the right hand side of the auditorium, as it is impossible to see what goes on in the interrogation room on top of the stage.

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Review: Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw in the National Theatre

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Olivier Theatre in the National, runs until Sept 4. Director: Marianne Elliott. Cast includes Anne-Marie Duff, Oliver Ford Davies, Paterson Joseph, Paul Ready, Christopher Colquhoun

George Bernard Shaw’s play about the life, death  and subsequent canonisation of Joan of Arc will always be a difficult piece to stage. Shaw’s intention was to reveal the mechanisms of power that lie behind the making of this iconic figure of history and the Catholic church.  What he is not interested in is psychological motivation and here lies the main flaw of the play: his figures are without a subconscious. They can talk very cleverly about their strategies and philosophise about the change from the feudal state to the nation state but there are no hidden currents or twisted emotions beneath it. The danger for an actor in this play is to sound like an essay on “The paradigms of power in France in the 15th century” instead of a fully rounded human being. Unfortunately this production doesn’t quite manage to  stay clear of this and lacks sparkle and occasionally wit until the grandiose finale.

Director Marianne Elliot does her best to sex up the play through  her direction and the stage, light and sound design. Rae Smith’s beautiful revolving set with broken trees in the background depicts the state of a nation torn to pieces by war – reminiscent of the setting of the recent Henry IV-Part 2 production in the National. Harvey Brough’s life music reminded me of Clannad and clashes in its ethereal qualities with the comedy of political manners in the first half but works very effectively in the second, more sombre part. But still, the first half of the play is strangely dull and mechanical, only enlivened by the superb Paul Ready as Charles the Dauphin who plays his character like a sulky and self-centered teenager in oversized clothes who makes the best out of Shaw’s witty dialogue. The second half is much more moving, with Oliver Ford Davies shining as the Inquisitor who makes Joan’s burning a necessity of power. There is a strong ensemble cast throughout.  It is these interrogation scenes that work best as the different fractions of power clash with each other and with Joan’s convictions. The burning is grandiosely staged in both sound and light design as Joan stands on a pile of chairs forming a stake while smokes envelopes her and we hear the crackling of fire.  Unfortunately Anne-Marie Duff doesn’t quite capture the nuttiness and charisma of Joan until the interrogation scene when she cracks and thinks that her voices have deceived her. Although she looks the part, we can never quite understand how she wins the hearts of the troops and converts sceptics into believers. She isn’t helped by Christopher Colquhoun as Dunois, the leader of troops and possible love-interest who stays remarkable lacklustre throughout.

This production is not one of the most brilliant moments of the National but interesting enough to see if you can stomach a dull moment or two.

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Portrait: Rory Kinnear

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I have seen Rory Kinnear in three plays so far (to be true, I have seen him in five but the other two are too long ago to remember) and he has always been superb. Playing such diverse roles as the down-trodden Simon in Southwark Fair, the foppish Sir Foppling Flutter in Man of Mode and now the disillusioned would-be revolutionary Pyotr in Philistines, he is able to embody very different characters. What is amazing about his performances is how intelligent, subtle and moving they are. As an audience, you want to see an actor realising his full humanity on stage, meaning that he completely bares the soul of his character to you. Rory Kinnear manages to do that, showing the suppressed anger, the vulnerability and intelligence of the figures he creates.  He peels of layer after layer of his characters until the audience can see right into the inner core of their being. Despite the fact of having been labelled as a scene stealer for his outrageously funny turn as Sir Fopling Flutter in The Made of Mode, he is in fact a very precise actor with a subtle range of emotions who is very giving to the other actors in the play. However, he does have an enormous stage charisma that completely transforms the plays he is in and makes some of the lines appear more intelligent than they actually are. His interpretation of Sir Fopling Flutter hints at a hidden pain in this character and manages to convey a feeling of tragedy at the most comic moments – a very difficult task to pull off! But I love Rory Kinnear best in less showy roles. His Simon in Southwark Fair was at it most heartbreaking in a simple lunch meeting scene where he slowly realises that his date mistook him for someone else. And I can’t imagine anyone lounging so expressively in an armchair like Kinnear’s Pyotr in Philistines , discussing the meaninglessness of the word “youth” or talking with a cupboard about life. What a delight. I can’t wait to see more of him, even if it is just the staging of the telephone directory.

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Review: Alaska by DC Moore in the Royal Court

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Royal Court Upstairs, runs until June 23. Director: Maria Aberg. Cast includes Rafe Spall, Fiona Wade, Thomas Morrison, Christine Bottomley

Alaska, the debut play by the young playwright DC Moore, closes tonight at the Royal Court Upstairs.  It deals with the mechanisms of power, race and sex within the young staff of a blockbuster cinema. Frank is an university drop-out who justifies his blatant racism through his interpretation of the bible. His colleague Emma, who gives him a “sympathy fuck” explains his behaviour with his hard upbringing and the fact that he lost his father in the Falkland War. The young Chris adores him and plays Dictators Top Trumps with him in their break. When the young Pakistani Mamta joins the staff, the heady mix is set to explode but not necessarily in a way that you expect. At first, it seems as if the plot will follow My Beautiful Laundrette where the racist falls in love with the Asian and the wound of the world is healed. There is a brief moment in Alaska where this seems to be also possible. Mamta declares her love to Frank and takes his hand. For the fraction of a second, Frank seems to be confused what to do next, embarassed by her gentleness and closeness. “What you doing?”? he asks, smiling. But instead of kisses and salvation, he decides to withdraw his hand, “I don’t need you. Touching me”, and lunges into a full blown attack on Mamta who is bound to become his supervisor. Later in the play, he will chillingly fantasise of beating her up, crucifying and finally raping her dead body. But this is much later in the play, when her brother has reduced his face to pulp…. The play is especially strong in describing how sexual and social rejection leads to aggression, not only in the case of Frank but also Mamta who comes crushing down on both Frank and Emma in the end.  However, the final revelation that Frank’s father is still alive and that he is in fact a posh kid feels like a major let down. I had the impression that DC Moore didn’t want us to feel too sorry for Frank in the last scene – lonely, unemployment and beaten up – so he invented this final twist which makes Frank’s character rather inconsistent.

Still, this is a remarkable debut for a playwright who is under 25 and a remarkable performance by Rafe Spall who plays Frank. From the moment he enters the stage he is electrifying, capturing the aggression and vulnerability of his character on the dot. His enormous sexual charisma reminded me of Marlon Brando’s performance in A Streetcar named Desire. Aggressive and alluring, he is a character you love to hate. Fiona Spade is weaker as Mamta, only coming into her own in her final confrontation with Frank, shouting that “Emma was genuinely mad for letting you and your tiny white cock anywhere near her.” Christine Bottomley as Emma and especially Thomas Morrison as the besotted Chris give solid supporting performances. The director Maria Aberg chose to overlay the different scenes in the tiny space of the Royal Court Upstairs which works very effectively, especially when Emma and Mamta discuss Frank in the penultimate scene who already lies bruised and battered in the background for the next scene. 

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Review: the pain and the itch by Bruce Norris in the Royal Court

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Royal Court Downstairs until July 21. Director: Dominic Cooke. Cast includes Matthew Mcfadyen, Sara Stewart, Peter Sullivan, Andrea Riseborough

I don’t know what it is with American plays and films about dysfunctional families, but they always seem to play at Thanksgiving. The ultimate festival of family reunion seems to be the perfect backdrop for a family falling apart. This is the case with Bruce Norris’ play the pain and the itch that first premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in 2004 and is now shown in the Royal Court. A liberal couple with two small children invites the husband’s socialist mother and his plastic surgeon-cum-republican brother with his Russian girlfriend for Thanksgiving dinner. Soon things are starting to go wrong, or rather they have been wrong all along, with strange teeth marks on avocados and the itchy pants of the little daughter Kayla. The pain and the itch is a deeply symbolical play about the repressions of the so called liberal and progressive middle-class American who is revealed to be as angst-ridden, money driven and hypocritical as his Republican counterpart. Despite its sometimes annoyingly didactic impetus, this is a beautifully constructed play that slowly reveals the story it has to tell.

However the Royal Court production (Dominic Cooke’s premiere as its Artistic Director), although  dramatic, entertaining, well acted and at times moving, does not seem to be able to fulfill the full potential of Bruce Norris writing.  In my view, this has to do with the way satire and realism are balanced in the play. Cooke puts the emphasis right from the beginning on satire, to the point that the couple played by Matthew Mcfadyen and Sara Stewart appear as caricatures of a liberal couple – he as a wimp, she as a career woman. Later on in the play, Stewart is able to break out of the stereotype but Mcfadyen plays Clay ( I said this was a highly symbolic play) as too much of a buffoon that we could care from him. The point about the play is that these people are meant to be on the fine line between realistic characters and caricatures, likeable and politically aware and at the same time angst-ridden and hypocritical – in short: that they are us. But what we actually see on stage is a couple you wouldn’t want to invite for thanksgiving yourself. So the whole idea of satire as a mirror to the audience is lost as we can’t identify with them. Thankfully, the other roles are played with much more understatement. Clay’s Republican brother Cash (Cash and Clay, gedditt?) is played with wonderful sarcasm by Peter Sullivan, an Art Garfunkel lookalike. Andrea Riseborough gives a moving and funny performance as the Russian girl Kalina in a role that could have turned into pure cliche and Amanda Boxer is tone perfect as the forgetful and chatty grandmother Carol. Abdi Gouhad gives a dignified but slightly cliched Mr Hadid, whose questions both inspire and disrupt the narrative of the thanksgiving dinner.

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