Review: The Red Barn, Lyttelton Theatre

“Here walk I in the black brow of night / To find you out”

King John, Act 5, Scene 6

William Shakespeare

The Red Barn is a triumph of cinematography on-stage. Bunny Christie’s set design is absurdly slick, and the National’s Lyttelton stage transforms from blizzard to country
house to New York apartment with unbelievable rapidity. It’s just a shame the story is so underwhelming.

Based on Georges Simenon’s novel, La Main, David Hare’s script is at first thrillingly pacey and mysterious. Two couples struggle against a New England snowstorm, clinging to each other for safety, when one of the men vanishes. What happened to him? blog-4Did he purposefully let go of his best friend’s hand? Was he deliberately left behind by said best friend? Can he possibly have survived mid-blizzard? The characters also initially appear intriguing. Mark Strong seems affable as Donald Dodd, whilst Hope Davis is eerily in-control as his wife Ingrid, and Elizabeth Debicki(of Night Manager fame)’s Mona Sanders seems numb with shock at her husband’s disappearance. The beginnings of an interesting, if not a great, thriller are there.

The rest of the play sadly fails to live up to this tension and promise, spiralling into the classic white man mid-life crisis drama. blog-6Ray Sanders’ disappearance is explained relatively quickly – don’t worry, no spoilers – and relatively boringly so we can get down to the real action: Donald’s dissatisfaction at his perfectly okay life.
Obviously people do feel frustration at having been the best in their class/year/college/state and ending up right back where they came from; at not making it in the big city because of fear. They’re scared that settling down is settling. These are all acceptable and real things. They are also things which I feel like I’ve seen on the stage, read about countless times before. Strong is as compelling as usual, but even he cannot make Donald’s plight that interesting.

Ingrid is by far the most intriguing character of the play. Davis’s perfectly made-up face is imperturbable. Determined to preserve her perfect small-town existence, Ingrid is dispassionately shrewd, apparently aware of everything, even before it happens. This disquieting perception, like the rest of the play, is at first exciting, and then lacks any real expansion. Davis deserves more stage time, and more character development. The other female protagonist, Mona, is similarly Essentially playing a slightly less helpless version of her Night Manager ‘damsel-in-distress’, Debicki is impossibly elegant even when tearfully mourning her vanished husband. I should be upfront about this – I find this type of female character indescribably irritating. The type which floats around seducing men by an inexplicable combination of reclining on various white sofas looking sophisticated and modelesque, and suddenly crumbling in a tragic show of fragility and vulnerability. Well, perhaps not that inexplicable… Debicki plays this as well as she did in the Night Manager, but the character herself just seems like someone no woman would ever write, because she’s so boringly reductive. Strong’s character is the only one who seems vaguely developed – we at least get to meet his father (played with grumpy catankerousness by Michael Elwyn). But are middle-aged men really that immature? What sets Donald off on his mid-life crisis? Not his career, not his kids, not his family, not politics, not news. Nope, he’s jealous of how much sex his best friend gets. Wow. Such character depth, Hare.

What makes the production worth seeing is the set. Pitch black panels cover the front of the stage, sliding open into various rectangles or squares of light, to reveal beautifully chic houses and apartments behind. Props (haha) to the stage crew for the impossibly quick transitions between Mona’s icily glamourous expansive apartment, enacted flashbacks to the night of the party, and the Dodd’s immaculate New England chalet/ Given that Simenon’s novel is written in the first person, the black panels cleverly allow this sense of subjectivity to become clearer, closing in oppressively as Donald feels increasingly trapped in his life. In fact, the only excuse I can make for the underdeveloped characters is that the whole production takes place through Donald’s eyes. Drama is, however, an objective medium, and it’s so tough to get rid of this audience preconception. People, Places, and Things and 1984 have achieved it (the latter also directed, and written, by Robert Icke, the director of The Red Barn). I think it’s great that theatre in general, this production included, is experimenting with how to subvert expectations – I just don’t think The Red Barn makes this intention clear enough.What the set design is trying to achieve is fantastic, but whether it does so is dubious.

The key word for this production is stylish. Rarely have I seen such a glamorous production. blog-5The actors make the most of what they are given, the opening is gripping, and the finale is thrillingly tense, although not unexpected. What Icke and Hare are trying to achieve, dramatizing a subjective viewpoint, is exciting. Sadly, I just don’t feel like script, design, direction all meshed together to successfully show this. It’s also worth mentioning that, whilst the set is amazing, its gimmick feels almost too cinematographic at times. There is only ever one piece of action going on at once. Your gaze is directed only to one piece of dialogue, one piece of drama. When a character finishes their piece, they leave. What The Red Barn suggests is that, rather than trying to employ cinematic or bookish techniques, the theatricality of stage performance must be exploited to create really successful on-stage subjectivity.

The Red Barn at the National Theatre: 2/5 stars

“Beauty dead, black Chaos comes again”

Venus and Adonis, line 1020

William Shakespeare

What is it about Ibsen that inspires the most beautiful lighting design? Ghosts was gorgeous, Little Eyolf, for all its flaws, was beautiful, and now Ivo van Hove’s new Hedda Gabler is suffused with the most stunning sunlight, streaming in from one huge wall-window in the stylish white Maybe it’s the claustrophobia of being trapped inside, away from nature, if I get all English nerd about it. Whatever it is, I’m in favour. The streamlined design of Hedda’s apartment, filling the entire expansive stage of the Lyttleton at the National, makes the ensuing chaos all the more shocking.

I feel like I should warn; this is the very first Hedda I’ve ever seen, so I can’t really compare Patrick Marber‘s translation to any thing else. I did think his classic mix of beautiful and brutal language worked well, was easy on the ear and yet heightened.  I also can’t do one of those extended comparisons with great Heddas of years and theatres gone by. blogRuth Wilson, however, seems to me someone whose performance everyone will appreciate. With the same passionate cruelty she shows as Alice in Luther, her Hedda is by turns raging, witty, seductive, wretched, and elated, but always always utterly mesmerising. The beauty of allowing the whole stage to be just one, largely empty, set is the really the beauty of theatre; you can let your eye wander all over the stage. You don’t have to focus on the person talking all the time, and with Wilson in the background, you can indulge this temptation to the max.
There’s always something interesting to look at. I have to say, I’m intrigued to see how this will work out in the National Theatre Live screening in the new year. Let’s hope they don’t direct our gazes too much, because that would really ruin part of the beauty of this production.

The cast supporting Wilson do not quite match her, but this is no surprise. It feels like they are taking a step back on purpose to let her shine, rather than competing for The play is named after her character after all! Rafe Spall grows increasingly threatening as Brack as the play continues, and his final scene with Wilson is classic van Hove menace. Not give anything away – but think blood and lots of it. Not quite the bucket loads like at the end of A View from the Bridge, but a fair amount. Not to sound too much like Anna Mann, but “it was visceral, it was real, it was true”. And for once I mean that non-ironically.

Against the almost sadistic cruelty of these two characters, Kyle Soller as Hedda’s husband Tesman and Sinéad Matthews as school acquaintance Mrs Elvsted bring some much needed sweetness to the stage.
Just like the set, what this production understands is that it is the light which draws attention to the dark, and this is what these supporting characters provide. I was pleasantly surprised with the independence of Mrs Elvsted; she was like a Nora liberated from her Doll’s House. Matthews’ husky voice worked well in the role, although sometimes (very rarely) it became rather too pathetically plaintive for my  Soller, meanwhile, bounded about the stage, his face showing every high and every low as the emotions hit him, his childish enthusiasm for slippers and tears for his ill aunt contrasting completely with Wilson’s gleeful cruelty. As his rival Lovborg, Chukwudi Iwuji was similarly impassioned, and Éva Magyar was inscrutable as the constantly present and constantly ignored maid Berte.

This is a production of force and passion and energy, revolving around Wilson’s captivating performance. Hedda may not be someone I’m able to understand, but she is certainly someone I’m totally intrigued by. blog-3From the moment you walk into the auditorium, Wilson is there, head down, centre-stage piano, playing the same few notes over and over again. Her ennui is evident; and the repetition lulls us into the same mood, desperate for a proper melody, some proper action. Speaking of, the soundtrack to this production is great, the piano refrain returning transformed into a full song, plus excerpts of better known tunes. But really it is the set that sums up the production for me; a site of beautiful chaos, it provides a simply white background where dark and dirt can shock us even more.

Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

P.S. Shock horror I just realised I used the quote in my last post “I would not be queen for all the world” on a review before! Rest assured this will (hopefully) not be happening again for a while. Blame Shakespeare for not writing enough sentences with ‘queen’ in them…

“I know thee well; a serviceable villain.”

King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6

William Shakespeare

As usual my pre-university post-summer September spike is here, and I’m back reviewing. First up, the National Theatre’s production of The Threepenny OperablogIn a new adaptation of Brecht and Weill’s famous collaboration by Simon Stephens, Rory Kinnear stars as king of the murky underworld of the East End, Captain Macheath aka Mack the Knife – that’s right, the one from the song. I had no idea, in fact, that the ‘Mack the Knife’ song of Michael Buble and Robbie Williams was originally from this show. It’s actually in a way a relief for a Brecht/Weill virgin like me to be introduced to their dark and spiky theatrical and musical style through a jazz standard. In fact, I’ve attached Buble to give added atmosphere while reading this review – enjoy!

Kinnear was my main reason for going to see this production; he’s never let me down before and he did not disappoint this time either. His Mack was a completely immoral, shameless, self-centred arsehole, who nonetheless – or perhaps unsurprisingly – was very entertaining to watch. blog-5His singing voice was unexpectedly good as well, and his trademark distinct diction came in very handy in this musical where the words seemed really more important than the music. Rosalie Craig as Polly Peachum, Nick Holder as J.J. Peachum, and Sharon Small as Jenny Diver were all equally clear in their phrasing which was much needed. However, although Haydn Gwynne brought much to the part of Celia Peachum, it was very hard to understand a lot of the words when she sang. It sounded to me (not to get too technical) like the break between her chest and head voice was weirdly low in her range. This meant most of her solos couldn’t be belted; instead they became a little shrill and less clear.

George Ikediashi had the most beautiful voice of the cast as the Balladeer. blog-4I only wished he’d had more solos than just the ones at the beginning and the end. I can’t lie, the music wasn’t necessarily what I’d listen to on a daily basis, and it did feel occasionally like some of the songs were unnecessary, particularly in the first half. Saying this, the band was absolutely fantastic. It’s always lovely having the music-makers visible on stage, and this production particularly used this to great effect. In fact, the staging in general was one of the best things about Rufus Norris’s production. Vicki Mortimer has worked out a fascinatingly bare-yet-cluttered set design which makes full use of the Olivier’s famous revolving drum. blog-3The effect is to provide something obviously theatrical, where the atmosphere, rather than the image, of London’s East End is produced. It is made very clear when the actors and crew are moving sets, and these sets are made out of quite ordinary materials (paper and wood), yet altogether, lifted out of the depths of the stage, they make something extraordinary.

This is a play that gets better as it goes on, with the overtly melodramatic ending as the clear highlight of the show. Peter de Jersey and Matt Cross as the consistently corrupt Police Inspector and Police Officer also stood out comedically. blog-2I loved that the amorality of the play was made clear from the start. Nonetheless, despite Kinnear’s excellent performance, and the staging, this self-proclaimed amorality and the focus on satire rather than emotion somewhat distances the audience. You can be entertained by the foul and lewd behaviour, yes, but you can’t emotionally connect with it. That’s not really the point of this I suppose, and yet it did leave me feeling a little unsatisfied; I guess I’m somewhat of a sentimentalist, but there you go. The Threepenny Opera will be screened as part of NT Live sometime this month, I believe; it is worth going to see, if only for the set, but it’s not a play that left me with any sense of lasting impact.

The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre: 3/5 stars

“Music oft hath such a charm / To make bad good and good provoke to harm”

Measure for Measure, Act 4, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

That theatre is often supposed to make you uncomfortable is a received view. blog 6Yet it feels to me like playwrights and directors increasingly use extreme violence, swearing and sex as almost shortcuts to achieving this effect on their audience. Perhaps this is partly a result of my seeing student theatrics increasingly coming with ‘trigger warnings’ (I saw a brilliantly-acted, but gruesomely graphic production of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur a few weeks ago), but one need only think of the furore surrounding the National Theatre’s Cleansed (Sarah Kane) or Jamie Lloyd’s visceral productions of Macbeth or Richard III to see this trend of explicit gore.

Dominic Cooke’s revival of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre does indeed include violence, sex, and swearing; but what makes the production so brilliant, and actually so important to see, is that this isn’t what made me squirm in my seat. Rather, it is the powerful rendering of black African-American life in the 1920s that makes a white, middle-class, privileged viewer like myself uneasy.

blogThose more experienced theatre viewers than myself will have to bear with here; I’d never seen an August Wilson play before, or, to my shame, even heard of the playwright before this. In fact, I am embarrassingly ill-educated about BME playwrights in general, something I’ll definitely be making an effort to rectify.

For those of you, like me, who also know little about the play, here’s a quick summary: in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, four band members rehearse and talk (and argue!) whilst waiting for the ‘Mother of Blues’, Ma Rainey to arrive. The play takes place just before, and during this recording session, as we are introduced not only to Ma herself, or rather Madam, as the diva likes to be known, but also these four musicians; Cutler, the leader; Toledo, the intellectual of the group; Slow Drag, the quieter, superstitious bass player; and Levee, the loud, wildly unstable trumpet player, desperate to become a big jazz star in his own right.

It was O.T. Fagbenle in this latter role who was really the star of the production, blog 4every moment a performance, whether he was checking himself out in the locker mirrors, or stammering and stuttering over his lines, or dancing around the rather cramped area of the stage to which the musicians were confined for a large amount of the action.

I thought this staging worked pretty well; with the recording studio taking over the whole of the Lyttelton stage, the white characters of the managers and recording executives symbolically placed ‘above’ in the sound booth, and the band’s thin slice of a rehearsal room, where most of the action takes place, rising out of the floor at the front of the stage. Its thinness provided an important sense of claustrophobia, as the drama heightened throughout the course of the show.

blog 2A lot of this drama, and particularly the ‘back-story sections’ which – to sound old-fartish – I have grown to loathe in modern drama, only works so well because of the superb acting from the cast. With ‘back-story sections’ I mean those moments when a character suddenly launches into a long epistle about their past, explaining their entire character and motives for action in one dramatic monologue; it feels to me like these are just psychiatrist couch outpourings which are an easy way for a playwright to get out of having to tell a character’s mind through subtler mannerisms and oddly placed words. There were quite a few of these long speeches in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and yet the actors, particularly Fagbenle and the excellent Lucian Msmati as Toledo, managed to make them seem spontaneous enough that they didn’t jar too much in the course of the action. Giles Terera (Slow Drag) and Clint Dyer (Cutler), meanwhile, managed to create a strong sense of the bond between their two characters, without so much of the storytelling. I was especially impressed by the musicianship of all four actors; although there is actually less music than you would think from a play set in a recording 5

Luckily, we do get to hear some of Sharon D Clarke’s smooth vocals as Ma Rainey. Clarke inhabits this central role totally, portraying both the extreme diva and her reasons for being so demanding. Finbar Lynch as Irvin, Ma’s manager who maintains constantly that he can “sort it”, was excellently efficacious, and I also liked Tunji Lucas as the shy, stuttering Sylvester, Ma Rainey’s nephew.

In fact, the only real problem I had with the performance I went to see was the audience. Perhaps it was a result of being at a weekday matinee, but it felt as though the largely white, elderly audience was self-congratulatory. The setting of the play in both the past, and another country, seemed to allow them to distance themselves from any blame, with even some outright laughter being heard during the final, most distressing climax. There was blog 3also laughter during Slyvester’s stuttering: “Oh, don’t make him do it” was heard through titters. I’m aware that this may sound typically-critic-like, as if no one quite understands the play as well as I do. Yet the outright laughter just really irritated me, when such important issues – which are still relevant – were being raised.

The National Theatre have combined with playwright Kwame Kwei-Amah to create the Black Plays Archive, a website providing information and digital resources addressing the contribution of African, Caribbean and black British playwrights to British theatre. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is an excellent revival, worth seeing for the acting alone, but made more important because of its message. My hope is that its success will not only impact the thoughts of those seeing it, but also encourage Rufus Norris and his team to put on more BME works in the future – particularly contemporary British ones, so that it is not quite so easy for an audience to distance themselves from guilt by means of accent or dress.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

“So quick bright things come to confusion.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

If what you’re looking for in the theatre is colours, dance, crazy blog 6scenery and exaggerated characters, then, the National Theatre’s new, modern, musical version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, is the show for you.

Having read many recent reviews rubbishing this adaptation of the famous book, both in newspapers and in many of the reviews by my fellow #LDNTheatreBloggers. I entered the Olivier Theatre therefore with reasonably low expectations; of a mediocre score, a chaotic set, and a confusing storyline. And these three things were all true. Damon Albarn’s songs are pretty forgettable, the set is insanely cluttered, and the storyline, already confusing in the original book, is even more so with the added layer of modern conceit
Royal National Theatre, London


However, surprisingly, none of this really mattered! I really enjoyed this musical; it’s not one for the ages, no, I can’t see it transferring or anything, but the experience was never boring – and what’s more, at least it was an experience, and one which is actually surprisingly hard to forget. pictures the mythical land of Wonderland as a virtual reality website; as the Cheshire Cat (an exuberant Hal Fowler) loudly proclaims as he whizzes about the stage on his seemingly magical armchair, “www dot wonder dot land….”

Aly is our hero, played with spirit by Lois Chimimba, a shy girl who escapes from her mum and dad’s traumatic separation, three school bullies (amusingly named after the original Alice’s cats Dinah, Mary Ann and Kitty), and her baby brother who won’t stop throwing up, by creating an avatar, ‘Alice’, for herself. It is pointed out by the actors (just in case we didn’t get it ourselves) that this avatar is white, in contrast to Aly’s mixed race heritage.
Royal National Theatre, London


“I hate me” proclaims Aly with a typically teenage melodrama mixed with truth. “Who are you?” is the repeated question she is asked; problems of self-identity which most can relate to. In fact, the entire musical has a very One-Direction-esque message “You don’t know you’re beautiful” aka ‘be yourself’; be comfortable in your own skin. In this sense, then, it really isn’t particularly ground-breaking at all.

What is fascinating, and the most fun to watch, is the way this world of is created on stage, in contrast to the grey and dull world in which Aly, her mother, father, brother and schoolmates live. It’s easy to see why headmistress Mrs Manxome (in the star turn of the night, a hilariously hyperbolic performance from Anna Francolini), after confiscating Aly’s phone, is immediately drawn into this world of colour and creatures and craziness.
Royal National Theatre, London


There’s the digital purple, widely grinning Cheshire Cat face and the gas-masked, white tutu-ed White Rabbit (Joshua Lacey). There’s the glittering blue Caterpillar (played by Fowler with another golden-toothed grin) and his body, each orb played by a different dancer with some incredible choreography by Javier De Frutos. There are the other avatars; a transvestite dodo, bulimic ballet dancers Dee and Dum, and a giant mouse, who in real life is “a short twat” who can’t get any girls, among others. And, of course, there’s Alice herself, played with bold sweetness by Carly Bawden, who becomes almost like a big sister to both Aly and Mrs Manxome. Enyi Okoronkwo is also convincing as Aly’s only school friend, Luke, battling zombies in a very entertaining number within his own smartphone game.
Royal National Theatre, London


With all this going on, it’s hardly surprisingly the whole thing gets rather fragmented and chaotic as it continues. This isn’t helped by the fact that all the ‘real world’ scenery and characters stay on stage whilst the larger-the-life avatars invade to create I see why this is done -to make it clear that it’s only a virtual layer over the top of life, but it does just confuse things so much. Another recent production aiming to recreate the chaos of the internet Teh Internet is Serious Business managed this by not crossing the two worlds too much, and director Rufus Norris and set designer Rae Smith would be wise to consider the successful chaos of that production.

This was evening, then, that far exceeded my expectations. Thanks to the National Theatre’s excellent Entry Pass Scheme I ended up with a second row stalls seat for only a fiver so I got to experience the confetti shower (of course there’s a confetti shower) and felt like my eyes and ears were being constantly crowded with new, and even more crazy elements. blog 7The actors are excellent – I can’t really think of a weak link – with the three female leads particularly standing out in both voice and character. The music is bland in that you don’t really exit singing one of the songs, but they aren’t so bland as to be boring when actually watching. The set is far too chaotic, especially during the last frantic number, and the overall message is pretty standard musical fare yes. It’s not one for the ages. But I and my friend both had a really enjoyable night out watching – and experiencing the fabulous exhibition enter downstairs (it has a whole 3D virtual reality music video!) – and so I can’t agree with all those critics who’ve slagged this musical off so much. Moira Buffini and Norris may not have created the next West Side Story, but I highly doubt you’ll forget seeing this colourful, chaotic, crazy production. at the National Theatre: 3/5 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 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

“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.



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

“And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything”

As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

Procrastinating? Bored? Literary nerd? Here’s my round-up of the top book and theatre-related sites lurking around the internet at the moment:

• Wondering what to go as for Halloween? Well, muse no more my friends: here are 17 literary-themed costumes to wear. (I’m getting into the spirit of things here in the US and am not going as something scary. Part of me feels I have betrayed by country.)

• Great photo listing the ‘Top 5 Oddities of the English Language’

• What would Shakespeare tweet? This article imagines 12 “literary legends” on twitter.

• A blog from Giles Terera and Dan Poole (actors, who coincidentally I just saw in National Theatre Live’s ‘Hamlet’, starring Rory Kinnear – Spoiler alert: IT WAS AMAZING!) on how they learnt to love Shakespeare

• Apparently the National Theatre has a tortoise, who now has his own twitter account. And it’s hilarious.

NEWS FLASH: the Folger Library’s Shakespeare collection is now online!

• More from the National Theatre – it was their 50th birthday this week, what do you expect?! Rufus Norris is taking over from Nicholas Hytner as artistic director, but the Guardian asked a variety of people how they’d run the National Theatre.

Famous authors’ last words. Number 2 is my favourite.

• ‘Wuthering Heights’ was one of the most disappointing books I’ve ever read. If only I’d seen this article, explaining the whole thing in gifs, beforehand.

• And finally, more Halloween goodies – 18 literary-themed pumpkins. These people are geniuses. Seriously.

” ‘Tis mad idolatry to make the service greater than the god.”

Troilus and Cressida, Act 2, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

I went to see ‘Damned by Despair’ at the National Theatre on Thursday with my lovely friend Beth. Admittedly, part of the reason I went was because I could get really cheap student tickets. However, the play is also based on a 13th century Spanish play by Tirso de Molina and updated by Frank Guiness; so I thought: Spanish and English Literature combined? Sounds good to me… 🙂

The play has mostly got 3-star reviews, with a couple worse, so I’ve got to be honest, I went into it prepared for the worst. Actually, it wasn’t too bad. Contrary to the Guardian’s review (see below for the link), I thought that the acting and staging was very good, but the actual plotline was just too predictable and simple for me.

Therefore, I think I should start with the plotline; after all, it won’t take too much explaining! Paulo, a saintly man repenting for his sins in exile, is told by a devil-disguised-as-an-angel that his fate is inextricably linked with a Neapolitan man, Enrico. So when Paulo finds out Enrico is the most evil, nasty man in all of the world, he’s pretty upset to say the least. The play follows both Enrico, demonstrating his redeeming love for his father, and Paulo, as he gives up on sainthood, feeling there is no point if he is already damned. I won’t give away the ending, but I think you could probably guess it from the title of the play- it’s a typical story used by many religions to teach a lesson about God’s mercy and faith; a fact which is pointed out by my favourite character, Pedrisco, Paulo’s servant/friend, at the end of the play.

As always, I felt the staging was very apt; the swift changes and clear cut sets were impressive, and I especially liked the prison scenes. The tempestuous sky in the imagesCA5XVTTYbackground was very effective when contrasted with the rocksand the rising stage at the front (see left).  However, both Beth and I felt that there was some confusion over the era it was set in; obviously, with such a religious play, it’s hard to make the themes feel modern, since the majority of people are atheists nowadays. Yet the National decided to use both modern costumes for the ‘Naples’ section, which, I admit, definitely showed that these characters were current, but clashed with the old-fashioned mentions of bandits, public execution and eternal hell. The fact that the little boy playing the Shepherd (representing Heaven and salvation), Paulo and Pedrisco all wore quite antiquated costumes made this clash more pronounced, and, personally, I feel it just didn’t reconcile.

As I’ve said before, Pedrisco (Rory Keenan – see below with Armesto) was my absolute favourite; partly, I admit, because he was Irish, but also because he had the funniest lines in the play; he was the most relatable character. He provided some much needed comic relief afterimagesCA5XVTTY Paulo’s constant moaning – not that Sebastian Armesto acted him badly – he didn’t – but because Paulo was just too extreme a character for me to connect with. I never felt emotionally attached to him, just irritated by his stupdity and incredibly quick desertion of his ideals. Another of my favourites, even though he was only on for about ten minutes max, was Octavio, played to perfection by Pierce Reid. Again, this was partly becausehe was one of the few comedic characters, but also because he kind of reminded me of Antony Blanche from‘Brideshead Revisited’, who I love, as you can see from my previous blog post. He was ridiculously flamboyant and exceedingly camp, and some comedy was sorely needed after Paulo’s great ‘revelation’ speeches/soliloquy. Unfortunately, he got brutally murdered within ten minutes of his coming on, which I was pretty disappointed about 😥 However, his death was brought about by Enrico, who, although it was hard to completely like him, was very well-acted by Bertie imagesCA5XVTTYCarvel (see left) – he got the *hard nut with a soft centre* role down to a tee. I completely believed in his love for his dad and how he was willing to do anything for him, and this meant I also believed in his *SPOILER ALERT* reconciliation with God at the end of the play.

There was a helluva lot of fighting in this play; gunshots galore (which never failed to make me jump), constant cutting of throats, even a hanging towards the end. Sometimes this can detract from a production; I didn’t feel it did that here, since the corrupt, violent, pacy city of Naples was brought about by its use, yet I also felt that some bits of the stage fighting were a tiny bit sloppy – they didn’t quite look realistic enough for me. Now, admittedly, I’m always up for a bit of gore – you can see my ‘King Lear’ post to see how much I enjoyed the eye -gouging scene – but I did feel that some was lacking in this production. I heard laughing during some of the fights and for that many throats cut and people shot, there just wasn’t enough blood. In fact, there wasn’t any.

So, to conclude, a much better play than I expected, although I don’t feel that modern-day atheism and the totally religious focus of the play were completely reconciled; it didn’t seem like the audience could totally buy into the concept of ever-lasting hellish torment, and that meant Paulo’s decisions and his character were incomprehensible, at least to me. The use of the old, bony woman as the Devil (Amanda Lawrence) and the innocent child as the Shepherd was a good idea in concept, but the Shepherd’s entrances sometimes seemed a little contrived and out-of-place to me; again, I couldn’t get caught up in this world where Heaven and Hell are very real prospects, which is perhaps why, when one character went up to Heaven, many of the audience laughed at his expressions of ecstasy. Some really good acting, impressive but out-of-place staging and an overly simple plot meant that I’d probably give this three out of five stars. Enjoyable theatre, but not imperative to see.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment, like and follow 🙂

“Men shut their doors against a setting sun”

Timon of Athens, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

Here it is, as promised, my review of the National Theatre‘s recent production of ‘Timon of Athens’ starring Simon Russell Beale. I’m afraid I didn’t get to see it in the theatre, but instead went, about a week ago, to a cinema near my house to see ‘National Theatre Live’, which also happened to be the last night of the production. I would seriously urge you to try one of these cinema nights; they have them reasonably often, maybe once a month, in 600 cinemas across the world, and it means you get to see a great production for a bit less money and with a bit less effort! Personally, nothing for me can beat going to the theatre and the anticipation of waiting for the lights to go down, but this is the next best thing. Plus, there are little features and interviews before the play starts and during the interval so you actually learn more about the origins of the play and why they chose to perform the production in that way. Anyway, if you’re interested, I’ll upload the link:

Now, moving on to the actual play. If I’m honest, I don’t think this is one of Shakespeare’s best plays. As one of my friends, Helen, who saw it in the theatre, said: “There aren’t really any very complex relationships. They could have just ended it after the first half” (I say ‘half’, not ‘act’ by the way, because Shakespeare’s texts are all split into five acts, though almost every director chooses to ignore these and inserts the intervals where he/she feels fit , since four intervals would just be too much!). Now, in terms of plot, Helen is completely right, and the interview with the director, Nicholas Hytner, made this very clear. He warned the audience in the interval, basically, that ‘If you want plot, you might as well go home now’.

The main gist of the story; of Timon being a ridiculously generous man, who buys so many extravagant things for the sicophants and flatterers who surrounds him that he goes bankrupt, is pretty clear. Though he appeals to others for help, they put him off with excuses. Angered by this, he invites them again to a last luxurious dinner, at which, assuming he has found wealth, they proclaim their sorrow at no having been able to help. At this, he commands them to open their dinner plates where they find rocks and water (they changed this to ‘filth’ in the NT production to make more of an impact). Timon hurls the water and plates at them and then flees his own home. So far so simple, right? Well, unlike many of Shakespeare’s other plays (try explaining all the different family relationships in ‘King Lear!), it doesn’t get much more complex. All of the above took place in the first half, and the second half was more a long, drawn-out moan of despair and bitterness at humanity’s nature, by the disillusioned Timon. Luckily, Beale played this amazingly well, and so it wasn’t mind-numbingly dull, as I feel it could have been, but still, after a while I almost wanted to shake Timon and tell him to pull himself together!

The setting of this production is something many have commented on in their reviews, and I feel it certainly did add an extra, interesting layer on top of the play. It was set in the modern day, something that’s never been done before with ‘Timon’, yet worked perfectly. Ominous hoodies and rioters surrounded the aristocrats when they were thrown out of their plush clubs and offices, which really gave an underlying sense of tension and threat. one of my absolute favourite characters was Ventidius, purely because of the way Tom Robertson played him (see above with Beale). A rich socialite, with inherited wealth who had been bailed out of prison became a satirical sketch of all the ‘Made in Chelsea’ stereotypes. Just the way he pronounced some of the words produced copious laughter, and yet he was, at the same time, oddly realistic; his performance wasn’t so over the top that you couldn’t see him as anything but a source of humour. Although Robertson and Beale were my favourites, I don’t really think there was a weak link in the cast, although I felt Deborah Findlay as Flavia, the steward was a little monotonous in her intonation. I was especially excited to see that Philotus, another of my favourites, was played by Alfred Enoch who acted Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films!

Overall, a really good production and an effective setting made one of Shakespeare’s less exciting plays much better than I expected it to be. Though I say less exciting, many of the characters were very funny, like the Painter and the Writer, and there were several great quotes as per usual which summed a feeling up just a few words.

Talking of Shakespeare-related events, I and a few friends (Sophie, Micha and Elli), recently went to the British Museum to an event called ‘Shakespeare Beyond the City: Late’, run in conjunction with the National Theatre. We got to see a stage combat demonstration, RADA students performing some of the sonnets surrounded by ancient art, music and drama artefacts (they were really good actually!), make plaster-of-paris imitations of the ‘Ides of March’ coin (although mine has somewhat broken and so has become more of an archeological ruin) and hear Janet Suzman talk on Cleopatra. I thought she was very interesting, although I didn’t totally agree with her theory that Cleopatra in the original productions of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ was played by a woman, not a young boy as was usual at the time; I don’t feel this would have gone unrecorded since it was such a big deal, as is shown in one of my earlier posts. Anyway, I would really recommend checking some of these ‘late’ events out, because they’re a lot of fun and absolutely free 🙂

Coming up, I’ll be doing a less Bard-focused post; I recently read ‘Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen’ by Fay Wheldon, ‘Life: an exploded diagram’ by Mal Peet and, on the recommendation of my friends, ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky (the film of which came out very recently, starring Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller), so keep checking back! Thanks for reading.

NB: Just a quick thing which is pretty important, relating to ‘Timon of Athens’ – this is one of the plays Shakespeare is known to have collaborated with Thomas Middleton on. Middleton was a much more satirical writer than Shakespeare, and I feel the mixing of the two playwright’s elements is clear in this play; sometimes the two styles just don’t quite flow – although I couldn’t say where specifically!