#tbt The Astor Place Riot

When I say crowd riot, you might think of political protests, student revolution, football hooligans, eager fans. Theatre does not leap automatically to mind. Yet the 10th May 1849, 169 years ago today, saw a deadly riot break out at the Astor Opera House in Manhattan, NYC, killing at least 25 and injuring over 120: the infamous Astor Place Riot. And what provoked this awful event (and the largest number of civilian casualties due to military action in the United States since the American Revolutionary War)? A fight between two actors over who performed Shakespeare better. Talk about divas…

In fact, theatre riots were not an unusual occurrence in the early nineteenth century. Theatre was entertainment for the masses. Actors, and particularly the superstar actor-managers like our protagonists Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready had legions of hardcore fans ready to defend them on a word (think the Cumberbitches/Directioners on steroids). ea3b8711772038b4ae14fe3220885461--america--break-outs

This came to a head when the Astor Place Opera House invited acclaimed British tragedian Macready to perform Macbeth during his US tour. This pissed the patrons of the Bowery Theater right off, as they were champions of American actor Forrest. Forrest had recently returned from a disappointing European tour where he’d been hissed and booed in London by Macready’s fans. In retaliation, Forrest embarked on a tour of the same cities Macready was playing, doing a rival version of Macbeth. Thus, when Macready was scheduled to appear at the Astor Place Opera House, the Bowery Theater downtown would mount Forrest’s production of Macbeth. As any Shakespeare fan knows, two Scottish plays in one city can surely never lead to good things.

However, this was not simply a fight about Shakespeare. It was rooted in much deeper conflicts; class, nationality, values. Astor Place was seen as a venue for the upper class; the Bowery Theater was not. The pretensions of the Astor Place moneyed patrons had become offensive to an emerging street culture embodied by “B’hoys,” or “Bowery Boys.” Macready and Forrest therefore came to represent upper-class New Yorkers versus lower-class, English versus American values.

On May 7th, things started badly. Macready walked onstage to be greeted by boos, hisses, and pelted rotten eggs and old boots. The performance had to be cancelled. Macready refused to perform for the next two days. It was only on May 10th that he agreed to continue – bravely ignoring, or blissfully unaware, that the Bowery Boys had stuck up posters around the city demanding action from its citizens: SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE THIS CITY?

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By the time the performance began a crowd of ten to twenty thousand people surrounded Astor Place, pelting it with bricks and paving stones. New York’s elite militia, the Seventh Regiment, was called in to quell the riot—the first time a military unit had been asked to do so in peacetime. When the crowd did not disburse, the soldiers were given the order to fire. Eighteen died that day, although more would die from their injuries over the next few days. The militia’s actions were widely praised by the city’s elite.

More than just a riot, we can even see this event as creating the stigma around Shakespeare that we see today. The idea that Shakespeare somehow belongs to the elite could come from, or have been furthered by this event and its fall-out. According to Nigel Cliff in The Shakespeare Riots, these riots furthered the process of class alienation and segregation in New York City and America; as part of that process, the entertainment world separated into “respectable” and “working-class” orbits. As professional actors gravitated to respectable theaters and vaudeville houses responded by mounting skits on “serious” Shakespeare, Shakespeare was gradually removed from popular culture into a new category of highbrow entertainment.

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Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astor_Place_Riot

https://www.thoughtco.com/astor-place-riot-1773778

http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2014/05/the-astor-place-riot-massacre-at-busy.html

 

 

“Wife and child / Those precious motives, those strong knots of love.”

Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Little Eyolf is an Ibsen play I’ve never actually heard of before, but the five stars I gave director Richard Eyre’s previous Ibsen production at the Almeida Theatre, Ghosts, meant I expected much from the same writer-director-theatre combo.

Indeed, many elements of the production are very similar. blog 5In the script there’s the classic themes of family, claustrophobia, marriage, women and, oh yeah, a love bordering on incest. Not sure I really want to know why Ibsen was quite so preoccupied with this theme… but I think it’s best to move on quite quickly. The set design, meanwhile, is also similar in its use of a single unchanging room and a dramatic sky in the background. As the show begins, we are greeted by a cool, spacious, pale wooden patio, a lower path behind, and dramatic, changing sky behind. A glowing sun rose from behind craggy mountains, and then was speedily covered by darkening clouds. Light, as in Ghosts, is used by Eyre, designer Tim Hatley, and lighting designer Peter Mumford to dramatise the domestic.

To summarise for those who, like me, had no idea what the plot of Little Eyolf is about; Alfred Allmers (Jolyon Coy) returns to his wife Rita (Lydia Leonard), sister Asta (Eve Posonby) and disabled young son Eyolf (Billy Marlow) from a trip away in the mountains, having experienced an epiphany; Eyolf is the most important thing in his life, and he will stop working, stop writing, in order to spend more time with the boy. But if you’re thinking “wow, this sounds ideal, what a great father” thenblog 1 think again. The tension between Rita and Asta, and Alfred and Rita, is palpable from the very beginning, and Alfred’s decision, followed by devastating tragedy, serves as a catalyst, letting all the bitter heated friction come pouring out in floods.

Now, I personally don’t think that this is one of Ibsen’s greatest plays, but it still has some striking themes. However, Coy as Alfred Allmers really let this production down. If you look back at my reviews, I’m not generally one to criticise actors – perhaps because of my sense of the director’s ultimate power, perhaps because the acting standard is so high nowadays, perhaps because I’m a softy.

But this stilted and proclamatory performance was flawed enough that all three of my companions commented on it immediately after the drama ended. blog 3The was Coy played Alfred as this buttoned-up man suddenly dealing with unexpected emotion made no sense when you thought even a little bit about the character’s backstory; Eyre must also be partly to blame here.

Luckily for Eyre, Coy, and us, the two female leads are excellent, and the strength of the production lies predominantly on their capable shoulders. Leonard plays Rita with unspeakable bitterness, and yet her unmotherly emotions, usually an instant cause for condemnation of a character, are expressed with such passion and conviction that, whilst we may not empathise, we can certainly sympathise with her suffering. Posonby, meanwhile, plays a far more sympathetic character and skilfully is able to make the ‘goodness’ of Aster still interesting; the little sister of Alfred, devoted to him, and Rita, and Eyolf, she could so easily be bland or take second place to the fascination of Rita, and yet it was Posonby my eyes were constantly drawn to, even when she had no lines.blog 4

The supporting actors have little to play with really, but the actors did well with what they were given; Sam Hazeldine is likeable as Bjarne but overshadowed by Eileen Walsh’s magnificent Rat Woman, complete with heavy Irish brogue, handbag chihuahua and blackened teeth. Billy Marlow as the eponymous Eyolf was one of the cutest children I have ever seen onstage, and played his surprisingly minor role with piping clarity.

blog 2This production, then, stars several superb performances from the female actors, and a slick stage design, but is let down by both by the script itself, which seems to me doesn’t explore all the issues it raises properly, and by its stiff leading man. Worth going to see for the issues and for Leonard and Posonby’s performances, but not near the standard of the Almeida’s recent productions (Ghosts, Oresteia, Medea).

Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre: 2.5/5 stars

“It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t.”

The Winter’s Tale, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

This is I think the fourth Winter’s Tale production I’ve seen – more different productions even than Romeo and Juliets or King Lears. It seems like this has become the ultimate Christmas Shakespeare (to be fair the clue as to why is kind of in the title), a comedy that so almost becomes a tragedy at several points and involves the infamous Exit pursued by a bear stage direction.blog 5

This production really plays up the Christmas factor as well, and a Victorian Christmas at that (which seems slightly odd given the obsession with the Greek oracle but oh well, this is theatre, we can suspend our belief). The Sicilian court features a Nutcracker-esque Christmas tree, laden with red and gold presents, boxes which are excitedly opened by little Prince Mamillius and handed round to the adults – Leontes, Hermione, and Polixenes – who gasp and thank in childish awe and playfulness. blog 2However, this warm and festive world soon has a cold shadow cast over it, the lighting darkens the wide stone hallways and snow, which at the beginning is tossed joyfully over the audience, drops instead at the back of the stage, and later exclusively on Leontes, a picture of grief with white hair and tortured expression.

Now, this is where my English student-ness comes out, but this, and projections of snow swirling around, seemed designed to make the stage reflect one of the gifts most ostentatiously opened at the beginning: a snow globe. Now this is a trope often used, not just in Christmas entertainment but all the year round to show dreams, these dreams or illusions being shattered (think Hilary Duff in A Cinderella Story), or a la Sylvia Plath, a stifling glass jar impossible to escape from.blog 1 Obviously, given the relatively dark subject matter (particularly in the first half), it was the latter that director and star Kenneth Branagh chose to focus on. The snow and who is was showered on showed this growing claustrophobia; first of all, a Christmassy sense of togetherness, then the court closing in on itself in the wake of scandal, and then Leontes, alone with his grief and trapped in an icy kingdom of his own making. Even Hermione’s statue set-up had Elsa-from-Frozen levels of frosty beauty, which made it seem like she, too, was trapped in a walled-in winter… and then of course the walls break down, the glass is shattered, and everyone is happy and together yay (except *SPOILER ALERT* Mamillius who’s dead a fact which is always forgotten at the end. I mean, a child died. But oh well get over it and move on. It is Christmas after all.

So as well as getting my lit nerd on, I really enjoyed the less interpretive elements of this production too! Branagh was excellent as the passionately jealous, and then grief-stricken blog 3King Leontes, with Miranda Raison as his resilient, incredibly human, wife Hermione. This is the third time I’ve seen Jessie Buckley in a Shakespearean ‘ingénue’ kind of role (previously she was Miranda in the Globe’s The Tempest and Princess Catherine in the Micheal Grandage Company’s Henry V) and she does pull it off incredibly well, with exactly the right balance of innocence, strength and vitality. Tom Bateman of Shakespeare in Love theatre fame played a vivacious, energetic Florizel who seemed far more at home among the peasants of Bohemia than in the courtly clothes his station required. blog 4In fact, the peasant dance was almost over the top in its determination to focus on the physical and the carnal; especially during the kissing bit of the dance when all the men suddenly started stripping off – which reminded me quite a lot of a university party rather than sheep-shearing festival, but I guess the youthfulness ties the two together? It was definitely fun to watch anyway…

Now, how could I go this far without mentioning the one, the only, Dame Judi Dench, as Paulina. Warm and imperious, she brought both humour and gravity to the stage – particularly in the line I’ve used as my blog title. Her Paulina commanded attention and respect; although she was hilariously blogmanipulative in reminding Leontes of his terrible actions to get him to do things. I kept picturing how they’d have lived day to day for the sixteen years basically alone together – every time they order takeout:
LEONTES: I think I’ll go for the American Hot.

PAULINA: Remember how you caused the untimely deaths of your wife and children because of your outrageous jealousy? And also the death of my own husband?

Leontes bows head in grief

PAULINA: On phone So we’ll have a Margarita each please.

(If someone is a cartoonist and fancies illustrating a situation like this then I would love you forever)

So anyway, back on track. This production of The Winter’s Tale is beautifully designed and very festive, with enough bitterness to make it not a sugar overload. It all feels very filmic, especially the beginning, with lots of atmospheric background music. There were also some really fun comic turns from John Dagliesh as Autoclyus and Jack Colgrave Hirst as Clown. The only element that’s slightly sour is when Paulina and Camillo are conveniently paired together right at the end – but to be fair, that is kind of Shakespeare’s fault. I guess I would have just cut that out if I were Branagh. But that was a very small feature. The actors are great, and the set design is pretty; it’s a lovely production of what seems to have turned into a festive classic.

The Winter’s Tale  at the Garrick Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

“Shall I compare thee to a summer day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate…”

Sonnet 18, Line 1-2

William Shakespeare

To be honest, I can’t actually believe it’s taken me this long to see the stageblog 6 production of Shakespeare in Love, considering my ridiculous obsession with both theatre and the Bard. And I loved the film (who didn’t?!)

Anyway, I finally made it to the Gallery last week to enjoy a romp through Elizabethan stage life and to bore my friend with ‘fun facts’ about how accurate the script actually was, which I’m sure she was also absolutely thrilled by…

But seriously, the great thing about this show, and the film, is how historically accurate it is, without being the slightest bit boring. The stage is filled with constant action, toing and froing from the large cast; it’s interesting that director Declan Donellan has clearly decided never to leave his characters alone on stage.blog 1 The set is basically like an Elizabethan theatre, with a large open space at the bottom, and three tiers of wooden levelling that the cast can scamper all about, or observe the real action from. The Shakespearean idea of life as a theatre definitely comes across, but no too obviously, which I appreciated. I hate it when a good idea is forced down your throat; subtlety is always better.

Orlando James as Shakespeare himself was very impressive – full of energy and life, likeable and believable – what more can you ask?! I thought Eve Posonby as Viola, the heroine,blog 4 was equally energetic. In a way, this was great – it’s always nice to see such a strong, spirited female character, yet someone who is also sympathetic and sensitive – but I also found her a little over hearty for my liking at some points, especially when she was playing Viola playing Juliet. Yes, Juliet is madly in teenage love, but at the same time, she’s also a woman who knows her new husband is about to be exiled after killing her beloved cousin. A personal view I know, but I just don’t think she’d be bounding around the stage at that time; Juliet’s quite thoughtful, and it made all of Shakespeare’s compliments to Viola on her ‘natural’ acting style seem confusing. A little too boisterous for my liking anyway.

blog 5Apart from that, however, the cast were brilliant. Particular highlights were Edward Franklin as Kit Marlowe, Ryan Donaldson as Ned Alleyn and Suzanne Burden as a haughty but just Queen Elizabeth I. I also loved Paul Brennan as Hugh Fennyman, or rather, a very eager Apothecary, he provided some of the best silly light relief in the play – combined with, of course, the obligatory adorable dog. Gregg Lowe was actually equally endearing as Sam, the ‘boy’ of the company, whose voice unfortunately breaks just before the performance. Talking of voices, the singing and music is absolutely gorgeous – props to countertenor Charlie Highe for some soaring descants, and to Paddy Cuneen as music director.

Overall, this is a lovely show – with elements of great slapstick, and silly humour which anyone will be entertainedblog 2 by, but also sophisticated, witty jokes for the Bard Nerds in the audience. There are countess references to some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, but you don’t have to pick up on all of these to enjoy the play. It stands alone, a riot of music and action and passion, recreating Elizabethan London and the way they felt about life brilliantly. Some of the acting was a little over the top for my liking, and I found some of the references just a little clunky. I’m not awarding it five stars because I never quite felt moved by it. But really, I can’t think of a reason why someone wouldn’t enjoy this show, so definitely highly recommended.

Shakespeare in Love at Noel Coward Theatre: 4/5 stars

“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

I’ve been wanting to see the Young Vic’s A View From The Bridge blog 3ever since my theatre-loving mum and more apathetic brother went to see it late last year and loved it. On Thursday I finally got to see the much-lauded production of Arthur Miller’s famous play in its new West End home of Wyndham’s Theatre – the same night that NT Live was broadcasting, although happily this made no impact on our experience at all (in case you’re wondering whether to book for a broadcast night).

A quick synopsis: Eddie Carbone (a caring, strong Longshoreman) lives in Brooklyn with his wife Bea and their orphaned niece Catherine, who’s 18 but still acts around Eddie like she’s twelve. There is clear unresolved sexual tension between Eddie and Catherine, but the family still seems to function reasonably well. Crisis is brought about when Bea’s cousins arrive, smuggled abroad from Italy to provide for their starving family, and have to live with the Carbones to avoid being discovered as illegal immigrants. Catherine and the younger cousin, Rodolpho, fall in love, leaving Eddie outraged that this singing, cooking, blonde, dressmaking boy could steal away his niece for what he thinks are the wrong reasons. I won’t give away the ending, but things only escalate from here…

blog 2           Mark Strong (famous for being the evil guy in tons of movies, like Kick Ass, and the spymaster in The Imitation Game) plays the lead role, Eddie, here with great quiet strength, which slowly gets more and more menacing as the two-hour play goes on. When I first heard there was no interval I was a little nervous; I tend to think anything over about 100 minutes should really have a break – if only to prevent your bum getting numb! However, the director Ivo van Hove gets away with it this time. The play absolutely would have suffered from a break in the tension, and really the only reason I sometimes wanted a break was because the seats, as theatre seats often are, were not the comfiest of chairs.

Strong is really the centre of this piece, exuding a silent energy even when not actually speaking. As the ‘villain’ of the piece, I suppose, he manages to show what Miller often demonstrates in his plays – the understandable reasons behind his eventual descent, making the audience sympathise with him, whilst also being conscious of how wrong his feelings and decisions are.  However, that’s not to say the other actors don’t hold their own next to him. Phoebe Fox, in the difficult role of Catherine, strikes a good balance between innocence and maturity, between girl and women – and it’s interesting that she played Cordelia in the Almeida’s King Lear (review here), another production in which the father figure sexualised the daughter in a disturbing way.blog I appreciated Fox making it clear that Catherine didn’t really realise the effect her clingy actions were having on Eddie and Bea and their relationship, because otherwise she can seem a manipulative character, and the key thing in this play is that there is really no categorically ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ character.

Even America and Italy, compared so often they become almost like characters, show this duality; America is where the Italians come for vital work, whilst in Sicily their family is starving to death, and yet an impassioned speech, powerfully delivered by Luke Norris as Rodolpho, shows that it really isn’t that one-sided. Italy for the immigrants has everything America has, everything except work, and they can’t understand a legal system in the US that forces family honour to go undefended. I loved the way Emun Elliott showed this contrast in the character of Mario – really the most likeable character in the play (for me at least!), together with Nicola Walker’s torn Bea.

I felt like, although Michael Gould did a fine job as the narrator of the tale, the lawyer Alfieri, I didn’t completely see his relevance to the story, except perhaps to help the audience along and to provide a voice of reason? I don’t know, it just seemed odd that he was onstage most of the time, a silent presence watching on with us. It probably would have felt weirder, though, if he’d just appeared to quickly foresee terrible consequences and then vanished. Hmmm… I don’t know the script so not sure how I would have directed it, but I just didn’t really get his character.

A scene from A View from the Bridge              The set also left me confused – good confused, but confused nonetheless. A quick summary – a rectangle onstage, with audience seated either side, as well as in the auditorium. At first it appeared to be a black box, but then the sides and roof lifted off, and a white floor was revealed, edged with black and transparent rectangular seating (if that makes sense).  All the actors wore bare feet on this floor throughout, and only Alfieri ever moved outside of the box space. It was so beautifully streamlined and clean and so pleasing to the eye, and yet… for me it seemed like the clutter and claustrophobia of a small Brooklyn house is surely a key reason behind the painful tension between the relatives, and, although there was a brilliant scene with intensely strained pauses between each individual line, sometimes this chaos and resulting tension was missing for me, and that was a result of the clean, boxy set (whereas in the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire review here – the claustrophobia and lack of privacy came across much more clearly). Perhaps the space seemed much smaller closer up – Wyndham’s is a very different theatre to the Young Vic, so it’s hard to see the original intentions sometimes.

However, the final dramatic piece of setting was absolutely awe-inspiring. *SPOILER ALERT* blog 4The actors, tightly huddled in together like two rugby teams were suddenly, dramatically showered with pints and pints of blood or red rain, soaking through their hair, costumes, pooling across the stage, turning from dark pink to scarlet to almost blue, there was so much. As Strong crawled painfully across the floor, the blood would move with him, creating colours that were gone in a second. I have to say, apart from being very dramatic, it also looked so much fun. I’d love to have a go in that.

This ending brings an intense and tightly focused play to a striking conclusion. The cast are adept at bringing out the complexities in Miller’s multifaceted characters, and the set – whilst not perhaps how I would stage it – is still very impressive. However, it is Strong who is absolutely the main reason to see this production, with a powerful performance as “purely” Eddie.

A View From The Bridge at Wyndham’s Theatre (transfer from Young Vic): 4/5 stars

“For a kingdom any oath may be broken”

Henry VI, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

blogWho doesn’t love an excitingly sudden original production? Especially at the National Theatre, where I can get £5 tickets (any 16-25 year olds out there, check out their Entry Pass scheme). The world premiere of Richard Bean’s brand spanking new play ‘Great Britain’, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Billie Piper was dramatically announced just after the equally shocking verdicts of the Leveson inquiry were broadcast.

A clever move on the artistic director’s part; Hytner clearly wanted to have the whole scandal fresh in his audience’s minds, since ‘Great Britain’ is a satirical, blog 1darkly comic play all about phone hacking, tabloid newspapers and the way huge organisations like the police, the press and politicians are often corrupt to their very core.

Piper plays Paige Britain, hot-shot News Editor of ‘The Free Press’ (an obvious parallel to ‘The News of the World’); a red-top only out for scandal and stories which can ruin people’s lives in a paragraph. Locked in a never-ending battle for higher readership, and obsessed with her ambition of ‘being invited to a party’ Paige chances upon the biggest break of her career – a way to hack any phone and listen to any message she could possibly want.

This leads us onto a pacy plot full of twists and turns, copious swearing, inventive insults and ominous foreshadowing. Whilst Paige is clearly the protagonist, and Piper does a fantastic job portraying this unlikeable, flint-hearted, cunning fox of a woman, there are several other stand-out members of the large cast.blog 5 Robert Glenister (who was hilarious in Noises Off) was uproarious as foul-mouthed Chief Editor Wilson Tikkel, knowing a good story by its power to give him an erection; Kiruna Stamellblog 2 was great as solicitor to the stars Wendy Klinkard (almost the ‘good’ version of Paige; still ambitious and strong, but out for what’s ‘right’) and finally, the man I think became everyone’s highlight, Aaron Neil as Police Commissioner Sully Kassam.

Sully was an Evelyn Waugh-Charles Dickens type character; an absurdity of a human being. Neil played this part with perfect comedic timing and deadpan seriousness. Half the humour came from Sully having absolutely no idea how funny he was being, and Neil captured this ignorance impeccably. Despite his stupidity, however, he was also one of the more loveable characters in the blog 3drama, and as such, (SPOILERS) one felt almost sad at his eventual downfall. (END OF SPOILERS). Although, now I think about it, he would be a truly awful person to have in power. Being funny is really no excuse for witlessness (perhaps a comment on the popularity of a certain London Mayor here…?!). As you see, every touch of comedy in this play is simply the coating for a not totally original critique on our society and those in power.

My favourite element of this play, by far, was the set. Not only did the newspaper blog 4office look totally realistic (I can actually say this from experience now!), but sliding screens used to change scenes became the highlight of the show. These screens showed us newspaper headlines from broadsheets and tabloids like ‘The Guardener: We think so you don’t have to’ and ‘The Daily Wail’ which ignores all the ongoing news and concentrates on important things like ‘Immigrant Eats Swans’. We got snatches of voicemails about one night stands and tomato soup brands and even some from the Royal Family. But by far the best moments were the ‘Youtube takedowns’ of Sully Kassam. As soon as he’d finished giving another absurd speech, we were treated to the auto-tuned version of it. I just wish the NT would upload it so I could show you all – it’s like the ‘Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Wife’ kinda deal:

*Contented sigh* Great song.

Anyway, overall this is a really fun afternoon/evening out, with plenty of brilliantly witty lines, great acting (I need to mention Oliver Chris here as Asst. Commissioner Donald Doyle Davidson, showing how those with good intentions can become warped by the system, and adding a note of poignancy and tragedy to the ending) and perfect staging. I’m not saying it’s going to say anything you haven’t be thinking already; the events are almost exactly those of Leveson Trial fame, so these issues have probably been scurrying around your heads for a while now. Well worth going to see, and a fantastic accomplishment on the part of Bean, but not quite five-out-of-five worthy.

Great Britain at the National Theatre (transferring to West End in autumn): 4/5 stars

“He’s loved of the distracted multitude”

Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

If you too are a West-End addict, you can’t have helped noticing the wealth of five-star reviews that the new production of David Hare’s ‘Skylight’ at Wyndham’s Theatre has garnered. blogStarring film-stars Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, this production has it all; great staging, a fantastic cast and a brilliant script. Good news for those of you who can’t get tickets/can’t get to London; it’s being shown in cinemas worldwide on 17th July as part of National Theatre Live. I might even go see it again!

First, the low-down on the reasonably simple plot (although after Mr Burnsand basically any Shakespeare play, anything seems simple): Kyra (Mulligan), around thirty, is a teacher working and living in two different, but equally down-and-out areas of London.blog One freezing winter’s evening she is visited first by 18 year old Edward Sargeant, (played expertly by Matthew Beard)). Kyra lived earlier with the Sargeant family for several years, but left abruptly after Edward’s mother, Alice (ahahahaha she has my name!), discovered Tom (Edward’s father) and Kyra’s six year affair. Alice has since died of cancer, and Edward has come looking for answers; why did Kyra – who he viewed as a sister – just walk out on the family and never make contact again?

Later that evening, after Edward has left, and Kyra is settling in for a normal night of a hot bath, making dinner and marking homework, Tom himself turns up, out of the blue. As the evening progresses, the two attempt to rekindle their once passionate relationship only to find themselves locked in a dangerous battle of opposing ideologies and mutual desires.

It sounds heavy, but there’s a surprising amount of laughs actually. The tension between the two never becomes unbearable, yet it is still a powerful play; one that really makes you think. The element I found most surprising was how much I agreed with Kyra.blog I had assumed before that she’d be incredibly and insufferably self-righteous. Now, I’m not saying the fact that she seemed to think she was morally superior to many others wasn’t irritating at time, but she did put forward some pretty major points about society and class differences and how to help the needy and modern self-pity. Ok, put like that it does sound rather sanctimonious, but trust me, something about the way Mulligan played it, and the way the script was written meant that I liked Kyra a whole lot more than I anticipated.

The casting was basically perfect to be honest. blogIn fact, my only criticism of the whole play was that I wanted more stage time for Edward; perhaps because Beard played him with such energy, and yet with such realism. Or perhaps because he was on a gap year and close to my age, so I related more to him. Anyway, who cares what the reason was, all I know is he was so good I wanted more!

I’ve already said how much I liked Mulligan’s understated performance, in particular her sudden powerful outbursts after many minutes of cool, controlled, collected calm. However, she was matched by Nighy in terms of performance. He leapt about the stage, gesturing here and gesturing there with this slightly odd two-fingered point, bellowing rage one moment, on the verge of tears the next.blog Really, I couldn’t fault it. I couldn’t fault any of the performances actually, I honestly can’t picture anyone else performing them in the same way.

The staging was really cleverly done; the whole story takes place in Kyra’s supposedly freezing, tiny, crappy apartment.blog Sometimes a play with no real scene changes can get, dare I say it, a little boring, and even overly claustrophobic for an audience. However, with moving walls, working taps and stove and the outside of the flat visible, Bob Crawley turned this limitation into an advantage. One really felt a part of Kyra’s life, and, whilst getting the smallness of the flat down to a tee, having the outside world visible for a lot of the play meant that it didn’t just seem like the characters were in their own little world where nothing had any effect on anyone else.

This play is famous for having the lead actress cook spaghetti bolognaise on stage as she is talking to Tom – just let me say this: eat before you go! The smell of the cooking onions and carrots and leeks and chili is absolutely gorgeous, and, again, shows how the play is rooted in reality. I know some critics and writers think that having ‘real’ things on stage – from real food to water to fire to animals to children to kissing – in some way emphasises the falsity of the other elements, and I see their point (let’s be honest, kissing in the theatre is rarely the highlight of the evening. Either it’s too long or too awkward or someone wolf-whistles… you get my drift) but in this production it really works.

As I hope you’ve picked up, this is a seriously good piece of theatre. blogLight-hearted enough to be an enjoyable evening out, but interesting enough to leave you contemplative afterwards. The only teeny tiny problem I heard of was from the women behind me; we were sitting right high up in the balcony and it seemed many slightly older people were finding it quite hard to hear everything. I think this is basically a stylistic choice; the actors want their performances as naturalistic and realistic as possible, but, that being said, if you are just booking now and would prefer not to listen pretty closely then book the lower seats! Or go to the NT Live showing of course.

Basically an amazing production of a great play. Go and see it while you can!

Skylight at Wyndham’s Theatre: 5/5 stars

“A little more than kin, and less than kind”

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

Another week, another American transfer; ‘Other Desert Cities’blog at the Old Vic Theatre is the latest play by Jon Robin Baitz (screenwriter for ‘The West Wing’ and creator/executive producer of ‘Brothers and Sisters’) to take both Broadway and the West End by storm – it was nominated for five Tony Awards! If you’re one for dramas about family relationships, secrets and intense feelings bubbling up after being mostly hidden for years, this is the one for you – a ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ style piece.

Our story starts on Christmas Eve 2004 in the plush house of Polly and Lymen Wyeth in Palm Springs, California. Immediately, as the family traipse back from a tennis match, both the heat of the titular ‘desert cities’, and the tightly-strung tension between the family members becomes palpable. Brooke, the daughter, has returned home after six years away in New York, coping with depression and writing.blog trip Trip, her brother, is the amiable one, trying to stop the arguments between his Republican parents and Liberal sister and aunt; Silda, Polly’s sister, is also staying at the house after a stint in rehab. The drinks trolley in the corner of the stage is frequently used by all characters, an indication of exactly how this family deals with their problems and dark secrets, of which there are many.

The first real crisis of the drama – Brooke’s announcement that she is publishing a memoir dredging up the earlier suicide of her elder brother Henry – proves a catalyst that loosens everyone’s tongues, heightens already elevated tensions and brings the family to breaking point. Intense drama is intermixed with moments of witty comedy (mostly from Silda and Trip) which prevent the atmosphere from becoming headache-makingly oppressive.

For me, this was a lesson in character portrayal more than anything else. The Old Vic was transformed so the entire production was staged in the round, allowing the audience to examine the complex personalities from all angles. Being lucky enough to get a front row seat, I especially felt right in the middle of the action!

blog brooke and sildaMy particular favourite character was Trip, played by Daniel Lapaine as the easy-going youngest son on whom everyone leans, without much thought for how this has affected him. In a play chock-a-block with big personalities and bigger egos, his part was more subtle, but one of the most believable and heart-wrenching. His partner-in-crime in many scenes, on the outskirts of the raging battle between Brooke and her parents, was Silda (Clare Higgins). Higgins played this ever-changing part deftly so that, whilst her wisecracks and seemingly honest revelations endear her to us, she is also clearly someone not to be trusted and, like the others, with her own personal agenda.

Speaking of personal agendas, we must move onto the neurotic, depressive Brooke (Martha Plimpton), probably the hardest character to emphasise with, at least from my perspective.OTHER DESERT CITIES by Baitz, However, I do think Plimpton fell on the right side of the line between impossibly irritating and understandably frustrating and made the character a whole lot more likeable than any lesser actress could have done. What I did find interesting was how many more of her liberal views I shared (something to do with the generational gap I’m sure, just as the play demonstrates), but yet how much more I sympathised with her parents.

The brittle Polly (Sinead Cusack) and understanding Lymen (Peter Egan) are, although perhaps not in the most obvious way, a perfect match. Now I am in no way saying I wish I had them as my parents, but at the same time, although Brooke frequently questions it, it is plain that they truly care about their family. One of the best things about this play was that nothing was completely black and white.blog parents I sympathised with every single one of the characters at some point, and each and every one of their positions was understandable, if perhaps not justifiable. This was, naturally, partly down to the script, but in a large part due to the excellent ensemble cast.

I loved the staging in the round, and the set itself was perfect; all white sofas and carpets, and a fireplace, even though the palm trees and costumes definitely gave you the feeling of oppressive heat. The story itself, just like ‘Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ went through many twists and turns and surprises, with the final bombshell not exactly unpredictable, but pretty shocking nonetheless.

Overall, an excellent production of a pretty good play. The ensemble cast and staging are the best bits about it, whereas I felt the only real flaw was the sense that this kind of family drama has been done a lot before. Basically an interesting play to watch, but not heralding anything crazily inventive and new in the realm of theatre.

Other Desert Cities’ at the Old Vic Theatre: 4/5 stars

“O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven”

King Lear, Act 1, Scene 5

William Shakespeare 

Having sneakily and shamelessly (can one be both sneaky and shameless at the same time?) used the insane popularity of 1984’ to draw you all into the blog, I think this is the point at which I reveal my secret ulterior motive…

That’s right, it’s time to whip out the Shakespeare.

*DUHDUHDUHHHHH*

suspense 

But never fear! If you do happen to be one of those people who doesn’t like the plays, I honestly promise you my next blog post will be absolutely nothing to do with the Bard. So why not just read this one and see if I can maybe possibly convince you Shakespeare is the best? Pretty please?

I’d wanted to see ‘King Lear’ blogat the National Theatre since it was first announced to be starring the amazing Simon Russell Beale back last autumn, and let me tell you, it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Although how could it not, with such a fantastic cast?! Tom Brooke, reliably quirky and likeable actor of ‘Sherlock’ and ‘The Boat That Rocked’ played an energetic, quirky and likeable Edgar (a hard part to pull off, considering how much less interesting he is than the other characters), whilst the veteran Shakespearean actor Sam Troughton, who I saw as Brutus in the RSC’s Julius Caesar back in 2011, portrayed the much more entertaining, seductively evil Edmund. One thing I think Troughton did especially well was make Edmund believably trustworthy – one could see why Gloucester had faith in him above his ‘true’ son. King-Lear-jpeg-1An outward sign of Edmund’s switch between ‘good’ and evil was the nerdy glasses which were violently snatched from his face as soon as he was able to spill the beans on his nasty deeds to the audience, his unwilling co-conspirators. It was a wise choice by Mendes to cut Edmund’s sudden reform at the end; better for him to die boasting than to randomly feel guilty just as he dies.

Also on the wicked side was Anna Maxwell Martin, star of ‘Bleak House’, ‘Philomena’ and ‘Death Comes To Pemberley’ as probably the most immoral character of them all, the woman who makes even Lady Macbeth look like a rather decent woman; Regan. Playing up the sexy, manipulative side of her character, Martin sashayed and swayed around the stage, screaming and spitting out her lines – to such an extent that some of the more elderly members of the audience sitting behind me complained they couldn’t understand her a lot of the time. Personally I didn’t have such a problem, but she did speak incredibly rapidly at points.

Kate Fleetwood played her more human, but still pretty sinister sister, Goneril. King-Lear-jpeg-4This is the first production I’ve seen where the difference between the two sisters is made clear; Regan is virtually amoral, sadistically delighting in gouging out Gloucester’s eyes (ergh, as usual there was plenty of blood), whereas Goneril seems more understandable. I mean, let’s be honest, I’d be pretty irritated if my dad turned up my house with a hundred boisterous, shouting, drunken soldiers who ignored me completely and disrespected my servants. I really liked how Sam Mendes (the director) showed the complexities of each character; that they weren’t just black and white.

Saying that, there are clearly some ‘goodies’ in this play. Stanley Townsend as Kent and Stephen Boxer as Gloucester were both excellent, and Olivia Vinall (Desdemona in last year’s five star ‘Othello’) was nicely feisty as Cordelia. I did think it was a shame she and the King of France weren’t seen as more of a partnership on stage; they exited separately which I felt somewhat dampened the romantic impact of his acceptance of her cast-off, penniless state.

Adrian Scarborough (who my brothers know as Pete off Gavin and Stacey, but who is also in Miranda, Mrs Biggs, Pyschoville) played the Fool King-Lear-jpeg-1with the sense of empathy which is so important to the role. Now, another *spoilers alert* here: this production finally gave the Fool his own untimely onstage death, much earlier than reported in the script, and in the most shocking way possible; in such a way that, true to the seven stages of grief, I think the majority of the audience were in denial for a good few minutes, but which I felt was a brilliantly inventive addition, and really showed the extent of Lear’s madness.

This brings us nicely onto the star of the show, (and also the perpetrator of his own Fool’s murder), Lear himself, Simon Russell Beale. Simon Russell Beale in The National Theatre's production, opening 23 JanuarWell I knew it was going to be good, but this performance was shining excellence, which brought many of the audience to tears by the end, and was a powerful portrayal of a once powerful man slowly succumbing to the dominance of dementia. As the tics became increasingly noticeable and Lear tried and failed to ignore what was happening to his mind: ‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven’, his oncoming madness became more and more poignant. His recognition of Cordelia really did seem like a miracle, but one that could never last; a bit like in The Notebook. A tender, yet fiercely honest portrayal that was nigh-on perfect at showing the contradictions within the complex character.

In fact, overall the production was basically flawless. The setting was a modern-style dictatorship, which worked pretty well I thought, though nothing to write home about. The storm was well produced and, as Michael Billington of The Guardian wrote: “Yet although the [first] scene has an epic quality, it is filled with human detail…This mixture of the epic and the intimate runs right through the production.”

What I’m trying to say here is: King-Lear-jpeg-1if you can possibly get tickets, do. I enjoyed this more than last year’s much lauded ‘Othello’ and this is from someone who wasn’t that big a fan of King Lear previously. This is the most emotional, real and balanced production I’ve seen so far; usually Edmund dominates, but here it is Lear, the real star, who shines out.

King Lear at the National Theatre: 5/5 stars

“Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it”

Henry IV part 1, Act 5, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

    I’M BACK!

Having finally got myself a new laptop and starting on a new trying-to-see-as-much-theatre-as-possible spree, it’s finally time to resurrect Mingled Yarns and start helping you plebs sound vaguely intellectual and cultured at dinner parties once more (I say that in the most loving way possible).

In fact, if you’re looking for that kind of impressively political and literary, yet actually very easy to enjoy play, you can’t really go wrong with ‘1984’, Headlong‘s new production which transferred to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre after a sold-out run at the Almeida Theatre and a 2014 Olivier Award nomination.

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First of all I should say, if you haven’t read ‘1984’ by George Orwell, please please read it before. As engrossing as this production is, the book is even better, I promise you. Also this review might be a little more understandable, as I’m going to be referring back to the differences between the two quite frequently.

The production itself is well-acted; I especially liked Mathew Spencer as Symes who captured the nervous energy of the society and who made the terrible concept of ‘Newspeak’ seem almost inevitable and coherent. Tim Dutton as O’Brien was also the perfect human face to Big Brother; seemingly kind but steely underneath.

Personally I felt that Winstonblog (played by Sam Crane), the protagonist of the story, whilst acted believably and well, was a cast a little too young. I’ve always pictured him in his forties, a bit battered, wrinkled and worn, not your natural revolutionary. The trouble with him being in his late twenties/early thirties is that his actions became very idealistic; he was set apart from everyone else right from the start of the play (revolution ‘lay in his way’ like in the titular quote; it was his natural destiny whenever he lived), rather than being a normal everyday citizen who just happens to become disillusioned with the society he has previously accepted unquestioningly after a chance incident.

This also had an effect on the relationship between Winston and Julia; to me, in the book this is purely a matter of rebelling against the system not of any true feelings. In this production, however, it seemed to mean and be a lot more than that. Maybe I’m misremembering the book, but I thought it implied had the two met under different circumstances, they would never have given each other a second glance. They are two completely separate characters who come together only to take down Big Brother in any way possible.

The set itself was very clever, particularly the way Julia and Winston’s time in the blog‘safe’ apartment was shown entirely through videos, which (*Spoilers!*) showed how unable anyone was to escape from the eyes of the Ministry of Love and Big Brother. The section where the apartment is raided and they are taken away was brilliant; the wall falling in, and the apartment being revealed as a TV show style set – oh, it was just everything I wanted it to be.

The torture scene in Room 101 was likewise incredibly powerful – not as bloody as I had anticipated, although brutal in its clinical efficiency, building up to the final, awful cruelty. Ugh those rats! By the end it was hard not to run on stage and force the cage from his mouth. I do wonder if that has ever happened…. I think the whole audience was just willing, urging Winston to betray Julia, which of course afterwards made us feel co-betrayers, also responsible for allowing the regime to continue, for surrendering, for preferring survival over revolution and principles.

The concept of ‘ooh look we could actually be living in 1984 now!’ was a bit labored for me. I get that it’s a very clever idea, something I would definitely enjoy studying and analysing in a class (woohoo English nerd time), but not one that necessarily translated that well on stage. It meant the production started off slowly and pretty confusingly; I understand that human nature repeats itself, I don’t need to be shown that a hundred times. However, the pace quickened as they started to focus more on the main story and by the end the references were fleeting but poignant. And I did love that Winston began his diary at the start by writing that day’s date – always exciting when you feel involved in some way!

blogTo end on a positive, the two minutes of hate were absolutely brilliantly terrifying. To have seven actors facing you and shouting and screaming and yelling and hurling insults and throwing chairs and hitting you over the head with a barrage of passionate hate was the most well-conceived, powerfully acted, chilling part of the entire play.

The production on the whole is exciting and thrilling, but occasionally a little too clever for its own good. Although looking back on this review it seems like there were many faults, these weren’t so noticeable it prevented me from enjoying the play. It builds pace and the second half is much the better one. Go and see it – but definitely read the book first if you don’t want to get lost (and just because it’s one of the best and most easily enjoyed classics in English Literature).

1984at Playhouse Theatre, West End (transfer from Almeida Theatre): 4/5 stars