Henry VIII, Epilogue
Yeah, one play can never please everyone, but this post is on not one, but two theatre shows, so hopefully you’ll find something here you like! ‘Chimerica’, currently at the Harold Pinter Theatre, is a brand spanking new play by Lucy Kirkwood exploring China’s relationship with America, through the story of the Tiananmen Square Tank Man, whereas ‘A Doll’s House’, now at the Duke of York’s Theatre, is an nineteenth-century Ibsen drama which portrays issues much closer to home; in actual fact, home life itself, and how ensnaring it can be for a woman.
Starting with ‘Chimerica’ then. This play premiered earlier this year at the Almeida Theatre and instantly became a smash hit, garnering incredible amounts of five and four star reviews… and deservedly I can confirm. It is thoughtful, intense and educational; I learnt so much about the so called ‘Chimerica’ relationship and also about the power of photography. We follow the story of the fictional Joe (Stephen Campbell Moore, who played Irwin in the amazing ‘The History Boys’), an American and one of the photographers who caught the famous photo of the Tank Man. He becomes obsessed with the idea that this ‘Tank Man’ is still alive, and is desperate to find and write an article about him, as Joe believes the ‘Tank Man’s actions made him the single greatest hero of the twentieth century. However, Kirkwood also explores the lives of the Chinese, showing how they have been and are affected by the harsh governmental regime through Joe’s friend, Xhang Lin (Benedict Wong). I don’t really want to give away too much of the story, because the dramatic twists and turns are incredible, especially the final one, which is both disturbing and fascinating
Let’s talk instead about the technicalities; all the actors were incredible (especially Claudie Blakely as British commercial go-between, Tessa Kendrick and David K.S. Tse as Zhang Wei, Lin’s brother) and the staging, as so often with modern productions, was excellent; it transformed from a New York apartment, to a Beijing flat, to a Chinese restaurant, to a secret police interrogation chamber, to a flower shop… And it also showed the power of the photographs Joe so passionately believed in. I also liked the fact that the Chinese characters started each scene by speaking Chinese and then switched seamlessly into English; it made it feel very authentic, as though we the audience could actually speak and understand Mandarin. There are some weak parts of the story, and the play is as long as most Shakespeare performances – three hours which can feel too long at some points, to be honest. However, the ideas behind this play are extremely impressive – especially the concept that China is not at all trying to become the West, but is in fact happy developing with its own traditions – and they leave you…well frankly, gobsmacked.
I think this is going to be one of those productions theatre buffs in the future will ask you if you saw, so if you can, definitely get tickets – even the restricted view ones are pretty good!
Moving onto ‘A Doll’s House’, another West End transfer, from The Young Vic to the Duke of York’s Theatre and starring Hattie Morahan, who in fact won both the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle best actress awards for her performance as Nora Helmer, the protagonist. I had no earthly idea of the synopsis of this play before I went, and it was still completely different from how I imagined; I thought it would be simply about the stifling effect of family life on a housewife, but it’s actually a lot more melodramatic than that, involving both blackmail and fraud. Saying this, for me at least, the real issue was the relationship between Nora and her husband, Torvald (an up-tight, creepy Dominic Rowan). Rowan played this part perfectly, showing impressively how a shocking play of the 19th century can remain equally shocking nowadays. Nora, in her impassioned and impressive speeches at the end, points out how Torvald constantly treats her as a doll, and this is certainly shown through his disturbing and degrading pet names for her like ‘my little skylark’, ‘my pet squirrel’, ‘little person’ and ‘little featherhead’. At times it genuinely feels like a father/daughter relationship. Creepy indeed. One could definitely tell it was Morahan up there; as in ‘The Dark Earth and the Light Sky’, she presented dramatic mood swings, childish behaviour and intense passionate speeches showing her independence from her husband. However, personally, I don’t think she could have done it any other way. Yes, perhaps it was slightly too intense at parts, but in the end I think it worked very successfully, although a lot of that is down to taste. Much of the acting was of this calibre; melodramatic but effective.
The set was extremely impressive (as I have mentioned, most are nowadays). Ian MacNeil has given us almost a literal doll’s house, composed of a living room, study, hall, kitchen and Nora’s bedroom, and at times this revolves as though speeding through time and we are given a glimpse of Helmer household daily life as servants scurry about their business, Torvold plays chess in his study and Nora plays hide and seek with the children. Of course, quite apart from how interesting this, it is also highly symbolic; Nora never truly leaves the house (even the party she goes to is in the same building) right up until the very end, when the lights go down as she slams the door. The set was actually my favourite element of the show (apart from the extremely cute baby which was brought on for a bit… ahhhh 🙂 ). One thing which naturally the cast etc. had no control over was the audience. Unfortunately, such was the extent of the hacking and coughing and spluttering from the back row of the stalls that at times it felt like being in a doctor’s surgery! And with a play like ‘A Doll’s House’, full of dramatic pauses and lines filled with meaning and significance, it could not have been less convenient to be honest.
Overall, however, an interesting, if dark, play with a great set and impressive acting. Thanks to Mousetrap for the amazing £5 tickets and the fascinating after-show talk with the cast, through their C145 programme!
Chimerica: 4.5/5 stars
A Doll’s House: 4/5 stars