Review: The Writer, Almeida Theatre

You have to have respect for a piece of theatre that makes strangers talk to each other as they leave the building… even if that is only to express their utter bafflement at what they’d just seen. As I exited the Almeida‘s auditorium after a preview performance of The Writer, the young man sitting next to me caught my eye and laughed, “I just… don’t know what to say about that…”. I couldn’t agree more – and that’s a good thing.

Unashamedly provocative, Ella Hickson has created a piece of drama which skates through styles, constant fresh attempts to find the perfect approach to tackle huge themes. How pervasive is the patriarchy? Is it possible to ever escape its influence? What matters more: artistic vision or mass popularity or sales? Intent or effect? Having a clear and uncompromising message, or weakening that message so that it can actually get across to your audience? I’m not sure this play answers any of those questions, something which can only be a strength. This is theatre that makes you think.

Hickson’s formal innovation is experimental and exciting, as we are tossed through events in a young writer’s life. She is adept at switching from genuinely funny, heightened, back-and-forths to realism to mythical storytelling soliloquies and back again. The naturalistic acting is continually undercut by the unhidden scene changes; actors change costumes and members of stage management (almost all women) build the sets in front of the audience, never letting anyone for a moment forget that this is a piece of theatre. The writer’s world, a world which always feels unreal, fake, is created; nothing feels secure or grounded.

Romola Garai in the titular role shows the writer’s growth in confidence beautifully, transforming from doubtful and self-questioning, to someone with a front, a defence up against the world. The number of different orgasms she has to have, each with their own significance, is a thing to behold – if excruciatingly awkward for her audience (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write).

At the risk of sounding like the men in the play (played with superb smugness by Samuel West and Michael Gould), sometimes the writer’s character is too self-involved to the point of being irritating. She isn’t supposed to be likeable, and that’s the point – even an ardent feminist desperate to dismantle the patriarchy will find it hard to empathise with her from very early on. Everyone will – and should – find elements of Hickson’s writing challenging.

Hickson anticipates many of the key criticisms that will be thrown at this piece. Following a mythic – and slightly dull – piece of storytelling in the middle of the play, the male director (Gould) enters: “You can’t end on that!” Cue a sigh of relief  and a burst of laughter from the worried audience. This doesn’t necessarily excuse the flaws, but it makes them seem to have some sort of point. Have we all been conditioned to enjoy quick verbal sparring because that is the male aesthetic? The questions raised just about justify the mild boredom (props also to Richard Howell’s lighting for making the stage beautiful during this section). That being said, surely allegorical tales of a mysterious island without men and over-heightened tales of making love by campfires are not the only option for a female aesthetic?!

You may not like parts of this play. You may not like it at all. But, insidious in its complexity, the questions it raises will stick with you for a long time.

Star Rating: ****

Go if: you like theatre that challenges, questions, makes you think. 

The Writer at Almeida Theatre, London runs until 26th May 2018. 

The show lasts 2 hours, no interval.

Captioned performance on 11th May, Audio Described performance on 19th May.

“I would not be a queen for all the world”

Henry VIII, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

EDIT: Mary Stuart is back! You can catch it now at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 31st March 2018.

Getting to see not one, but two, great, older actresses live is never less than a treat. Add the intense theatricality of these actresses switching roles on the flip (well, spin) of a coin, and you have a stagey must-see. The Almeida was already onto a winner when they cast Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams in the same play. Luckily the actors are not let down by either the production or the script of Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart – and the coin toss turns out to be far more than a gimmick.21995_show_portrait_large

For here, the two Queens, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart (aka Mary, Queen of Scots), are two sides of the same coin. The former a Protestant and a calculating politician, the latter a Catholic and a fervent lover, their differences are evident. Yet the dual casting highlights their similarities on top of this. Both raised to rule, with a huge sense of entitlement, they were also both imprisoned for long stretches of time by their own family members. The set emphasises this sense of entrapment, with the audience almost surrounding a circular, boxing ring-esque stage. Even though it is Mary who is jailed in this play, as Elizabeth paces about the small space it is clear that she, too, is confined in her role.

One of the most striking scenes for me occurred towards the end, the stage revolving as Mary (Stevenson, when I saw it) was preparing for her execution, Elizabeth (Williams) to face her people. Whilst the Stuart, gowned in a simblog-5ple nightdress, was surrounded by women and taking Holy Communion, the Tudor was forced into full Elizabethan dress, complete with ruff, huge hoop, dead white face-paint and bejewelled wig, assisted only by men. The rest of the production is entirely in modern dress, making this transformation even more powerful. Before, Elizabeth’s velvet pantsuit makes her fit in with her male courtiers; we can see her as a modern female politician, and therefore her harshness and vanity are less excusable. The period costume reminds the audience of just how difficult it was to be a woman in general at the time, and particularly a woman in power. What the production gets crucially right is emphasising the complexities of these characters, retaining a balance so that, for me at least, it was virtually impossible to decide who to agree with.

With one thousand, two hundred and nineteen lines between the two main roles, learning the script alone is an accomplishment for Stevenson and Williams. In the parts I saw them play, I couldn’t fault them; Stevenson was a fiery, incensed Mary, even as Williams was haughty and turbulent Elizabeth. I’d love to see them the other way round to see how much their portrayals differ – although of course the coin-spinning element means there are no guarantees!

The rest of the cast varies. John Light is incredibly intense as the blog-4cowardly, flatterer Leicester, making his weak characteristics clear whilst also showing enough passion to make it clear why both Queens fall for him. Vincent Franklin, too, is powerful as the hard-line judiciary, Burleigh, with David Jonsson, Carmen Monroe and Sule Rimi all putting in strong performances. However, there were a couple of roles that became rather proclamatory. Rudi Dharmalingam as the young rebel Mortimer, was particularly guilty of this, the words becoming quotation-marked ‘speeches’ rather than spontaneous dialogue.

Saying this, even though this production is a lengthy one – over three hours long, including the interval – it is a tribute to the cast and crew that it doesn’t actually feel that long. When my dad and I saw the first act alone was an hour and fifty minutes, we groaned out loud. Weirdly, though, the first half breezed by; it’s the second half that starts to drag. blogIt’s the trouble with a play about real history. Most of us know Mary’s going to die at the end, so her many farewell speeches to countless admirers and handmaidens who only appear at this point begin to feel more like hindrances to action, than particularly stimulating in themselves. Just hurry up and die already!

The production is classically Almeida/Icke, especially the sound design, with almost imperceptible underlying notes subtly creating a tense atmosphere, and dramatic bass drops at every dramatic moment. There is also a curious ticking noise which appears every so often. I struggled with this. Part of me appreciated the sense of impending doom it brought, but it came in and out so randomly I feel like a spent way too long trying to figure out why it came in only at those moments, so that it actually distracted some of the time. #EnglishStudentProblems. blog-3Still, overall the soundscape adds to the tension, and Laura Marling’s songs are particularly effective (I mean, I just like Laura Marling’s music anyway!). The brick wall of the Almeida once again serves as a simple backdrop, with an added element to create the shock factor of Mary’s final execution.

The audience is likewise typically Almeidian (new word, roll with it). Mainly older, middle-class, North London intelligentsia, there are frequent knowing titters and chuckles at any of the overt references to Brexit; and there are plenty of those. The timeliness of the production is stressed constantly – rightly so in many cases, the focus on appealing to a mass audience particularly relevant. I just found the laughter at the idea of these ignorant masses rather smug – although perhaps that’s a problem with the audience, not the production. It would be interesting to see how it would play to an audience made up of less of the metropolitan elite. This is, then, a far more timely production than one might expect of a play about the late sixteen-hundreds. The programme is really great, jam-packed with articles and photos. The coin toss is a great way of creating a tension you can only really get with live theatre and the two actresses are fabulous – this is definitely you want to get tickets for.

Mary Stuart at the Almeida Theatre: 4/5 stars

“What must the king do now? Must he submit?”

Richard II, Act 3, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

‘King Charles III’, currently playing at Wyndham’s Theatre,blog 6 is the play I have been waiting for. With so many rave reviews that it became one of the many Almeida transfers to the West End, like one of my favourite books of last year, The Marlowe Papers’ (Ros Barber), it’s written in iambic pentameter. It’s a modern Shakespearean tragedy and, not only that, but it is done to nigh-on perfection.

Unlike Shakespeare, however, thankfully we live in a time where playwrights don’t have to watch what they say to avoid a sentence of treason, and even perhaps the death penalty, as Mike Bartlett would certainly have be in for it in Tudor times! Bartlett envisages London after the Queen’s death, during the three months interim before Charles’ coronation.

Naturally, this is a subject that has been joked about a lot i.e. Charles being desperate to get his hands on the throne.  However, whilst naturally there are a lot of ‘wink, wink; nudge, nudge’, funny moments, this is also, at heart, a tragedy; the downfall of one man, and his struggle, not only against his government, his public, and his family, but against himself. Yet, of course, as a King and the leader of a country, Charles must deal with his own problems whilst shouldering the responsibility of a turbulent, modern country. It is a gripping study of what it means to be royal today, and of what it means to be a good king (just like Henry V, which we all know is one of my favourite plays of all time!).

blog 3Tim Pigott-Smith stars as our eponymous protagonist, and really carries the show. The iambic pentameter never feels forced in his mouth, and he makes the difficult decisions a ruler must take seem just that: difficult. Even if one doesn’t agree with a character’s choices, one must still emphasise with his situation and understand why they made that choice, and Pigott-Smith really gets the audience on his side, despite plunging the country into chaos and near-revolution.

Likewise, the rest of the ‘Royal Family’ do a great job of stepping out form the shadow of stereotype. Even though there were the obligatory laughs of recognition when they first appeared, Kate, Will, Harry, and to a lesser extent, Camilla, all become fully-rounded, three-dimensional characters rather than just caricatures. Lydia Wilson as the Duchess of Cambridge, in particular, shines; not only does she have the mannerisms and the posture down to a tee, but we get a multifaceted portrait of this clever, cunning, courageous woman who, despite growing up a ‘commoner’, is key in ensuring the continuation of the ‘Brand’. She is strong-willed and determined and a PR genius; not only a strong woman, but a strong character.

Oliver Chris (last seen in Great Britain) brings the same believability to her husband, Prince William. He is torn between blog 5standing behind his father and monarch, and doing what his wife says and protecting the brand. What does it mean to be strong as a royal? Is it what the Queen does i.e. always doing her duty, never giving away her opinions, and supporting the family no matter what? Or is it making sure The Royal Family product is safe, even if this means going against your own father?

There are honestly so many amazing cast members in this production I simply don’t have enough time to write about them. Adam James is a great Prime Minister and Nicholas Rowe is an excellent, slippery Leader of the Opposition, at some points it seems only out to make trouble without any huge benefit to himself. Richard Goulding is perfect as a rather sweet, naïve Prince Harry, and I have to give a mention to one of my favourites from many of National’s Shakespeare productions, Tom Robertson (think I praised him before in my Timon of Athens review) who played many parts with many different accents. My favourite, though, had to blogbe the Made-in-Chelsea type who introduced Harry to Jess, the everyman of this play.

This brings me to one of the only flaws in the play. Although Jess was acted very well by Tafline Steen, I did feel that ironically she became the most stereotypical character on stage. In trying to establish her as ‘so different to the usual blonde bimbos’, she became somewhat predictable.

The staging (Tom Scutt) is marvellous; sparse but very effective. The brick walls looked deceptively simple at first, yet soon one noticed the band of painted faces about half way up, all the way around. These faces would light up or darken, representing the public. A lot of the time this really emphasised the difference between a character’s private and public personas.

The funeral of the Queen right at the beginning, in which each of the darkly clothed actors holds a small candle, and the Coronation right at the end are the most spectacularly staged scenes, each accompanied by music from the clarinet and cello, and some powerful harmonies from the actors sung in Latin. I also loved the presentation of the rioting in the streets, as actors donned the infamous Guy Fawkes/V for Vendetta masks and dark hoods and marched on a scrabbling, ridiculous grinning Charles mask. One could feel the threat and sense of immediacy in the 4

As you can probably tell, I thought this production was absolutely brilliant. Was it perfect? No. There are always elements in a play that I don’t entirely agree with – how could Prince Harry have a long conversation with a kebab shop owner about the Royal Family, and that owner not recognise him? There’s a whole ‘Diana ghost’ concept which was very Shakespearean, but also a bit too ludicrous fpr me and I also thought the deliberate highlighting of the slimy Leader of the Opposition being Conservative was a bit gratuitous. It felt like pandering to a London audience and the arts world in general, and I felt, really wasn’t necessary.

However, it’s a play I came out of exhilarated and amazed. It made me laugh, and despair, and it made me think. It’s well acted all round, the staging is brilliant, and, most importantly almost, the script is so interesting. It’s the sort of play that could be played to generations in the future and they, too, would be both amused and gripped by it. Unlike many modern plays, it doesn’t rely on clever modern references for its success, but at the same time it plays up to the current times for a current audience. It’s a Shakespearean tragedy for our times, and for future times, and that is why this is a must see.

King Charles III’ at Wyndham’s Theatre: 5/5 stars

“The wheel is come full circle, I am here.”

King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Yet another amazing transfer from the Almeida Theatre to the West End. ‘Ghosts’, starring Lesley Manville and currently playing at the Trafalgar Studios, is a must-see.Ghosts poster

A quick blurb (cheekily copied from the website!): Helene Alving has spent her life suspended in an emotional void after the death of her cruel but outwardly charming husband. She is determined to escape the ghosts of her past by telling her son, Oswald, the truth about his father. But on his return from his life as a painter in France, Oswald reveals how he has already inherited the legacy of Alving’s dissolute life.

Ibsen‘s claustrophobic classic is performed in an uninterrupted 90 minute stretch; as the tension rises to fever pitch, and the characters get more and more distressed, the climactic ending leaves the audience in shock – one can only imagine how Manville deals with the aftermath every evening. The tears were still rolling down her cheeks and she could barely muster a smile as she bowed to the loud and heartfelt applause with the rest of the five-strong cast.

ghosts mother and sonHowever, whilst naturally Helene is probably the most demanding part, going through such emotional turmoil as she does, the rest of the cast also have a lot of the play to bear on their shoulders. Jack Lowden as Oswald gives a very impressive performance of a son trying desperately to pretend to himself and others around him that all is well whilst concealing a soul-destroying secret. (A small, incredibly shallow, side note – my friend Megan and I were particularly dazzled by Lowden’s ability to pop champagne corks so smoothly he could have been a bartender. Now that is skill.) Charlene McKenna was likewise sincere and also comedically tragic in her role as Regina, the maidservant who is infatuated with Oswald, but who doesn’t know the darkness the lurks in her past and threatens her future happiness. Her ‘father’, Jacob (Brian McCardie) shows himself over the course of the play to be so much more Christian and kind than the pastor, Manders (Will Keen) who is just the most hypocritical, pathetic man there ever was.

The actors really show Ibsen’s unusual (at the time of writing) sympathy for women and the lower classes; like in ‘A Doll’s House (which you can see my review of here), the wealthy, powerful man is shown to be much weaker than the women who sacrifice their lives and happiness for them and get little, or nothing, in return. It is a play of thwarted human potential, in each and every character. As you can imagine, it is a play ahead of it’s time, dealing with feminism, sexual morals, arranged marriage, incest, sexual disease and, finally, euthanasia, as the play ends with Helene having to make one of the most agonising choices a person, and particularly a mother, could ever have to make. Not to give it away or anything. (Although, if anyone has already seen the play, I’d be interested to here what you thought she was going to do; would she have gone through with it? Personally I think yes, though others I’ve spoken to thought the exact opposite – probably something to do with age and experience.)ghosts finale The finale was one of the most spectacular things about the play; as the stage was flooded in violent, passionate reds and oranges, and Oswald’s pitying cries combined with his mother’s desperate sobbing.

The set was perfect, in my opinion – closed and claustrophobic, isolated and dark, with the rain hammering down outside, it’s easy to see why this sombre and depressing atmosphere would affect its residents. The audience are fully drawn into the enclosed world through this setting, and the expert and extraordinarily intensive acting which is only heightened by the close proximity of the audience to the action. The translucent wall behind the main part of the stage allowed us a view of what goes on behind closed doors and cleverly evoked the eponymous ghosts that haunt Helene. ghosts lesleyMy only small problem was a tendency to melodrama, especially on Helene’s part, though this was more a fault with the script than the acting. And perhaps I’m just cold-hearted, unsympathetic and overly-critical…

Although, saying that, I’m still going to give this production maximum marks; tense, thoughtful, dramatic and superbly acted, it well deserves its West End-transfer. Go and see it if you possibly can.

Ghosts at Trafalgar Studios (Transfer from The Almeida) – 5/5 Stars