Kramer vs Kramer for the ancient Greek generation

Medea – Almeida Theatre, until 14 November 2015 (tickets)

Under Rupert Goold’s unusually restrained direction, the Almeida Greeks season closes with Rachel Cusk’s brutally open updating of perhaps the most intriguingly ambiguous of ancient tragedies, Medea. It is a production teetering on the edge of brilliance and one that leaves no doubt that there are few stage actors who can match Kate Fleetwood’s ability to humanise the most complex of characters.

Watching Medea, and reflecting on Oresteia and Bakkhai, the carefully chosen nature of the three plays becomes apparent. In the ancient world, the personal, political and religious were fundamentally intertwined but the strength of Goold’s season has been to disentangle these threads so as to give them a clearer contemporary relevance. The season opened with a stunning reinvention of Oresteia – a political tragedy in so much as it was a tragedy of events, where a forced decision leads to an endless echo chamber of destruction. This was followed by Bakkhai, where tragedy is orchestrated by a capricious and vengeful god.

Medea is a problematic play because for all its greatness, it has an almost unresolvable contradiction at its core – as much as we can see Medea as a wronged figure, the act of filicide can never be seen as justifiable to a modern audience. This was precisely where last year’s version with Helen McCrory at the National, based on a Ben Power translation, became unstuck as it updated the setting without finding a way to modernise the plot.

0332798d-e0e7-41b1-af41-9414fbd8949b-680x365_cTo get around this problem Cusk has substantially reworked the play to the extent that a person could watch this production and not realise that it is taken from an ancient Greek play. Purists may decry the lack of poetry and question whether this is can truly be called Euripides’ play given the narrative reworking that takes place. This should be countered by the fact that it arrives with the note that it is a new version by Rachel Cusk, and that the myths have always been adapted to meet the needs of the time.

Where Goold and Cusk succeed is to entirely reimagine the play. It is not a tragedy brought about by the divine, or by individuals caught up in grand events. It is a tragedy found in the domesticity of everyday life. Cusk’s interpretation thrusts the play into the modern world. The time of gods has passed and instead we live in a world of men (and the use of the word ‘men’ is entirely intentional).

Medea has become a domestic tragedy about family breakdown. It is a snarling, vituperative text that sets Jason against Medea, with the children a battleground and reputations as weapons. Anger courses through the play, and confrontations between the two are ferocious all-out assaults that have a dangerous, spiteful venom rarely captured on the stage.

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Talking Theatre – More Podcasting

Another week, another episode of the As Yet Unnamed Theatre Podcast. This week we cast our eyes other musicals, early Russian naturalism and ancient Greek tragedy. An eclectic mix as ever.

You can listen here: As Yet Unnamed Theatre Podcas

Plays under discussion are Bakkhai, 3 Days in the Country and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Joining our host, Tim Watson, was JohnnyFox, PaulInLondon, Nick from Partially Obstructed View, and Gareth James.

Warning: This episode contains plenty of Ben Whishaw related discussion.

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

Thrills and chills enough to satisfy the most capricious of gods

Bakkhai – Almeida Theatre, until 19 September 2015 (ticketsthere are still a handful of remaining)Ben-Whishaw-in-Bakkhai2 Photo credit Marc Brenner

The first notable thing about ‘Bakkhai’, Anne Carson’s new translation of Euripides ancient tragedy, is the missing definite article from the play’s title. Commonly known as ‘The Bacchae’ the removal of ‘the’ feels in itself a significant act in keeping with the indeterminate nature of the play’s leading character, Dionysos.

We use ‘the’ when the person taking in the information will know exactly to what we will refer. Yet in a Thebes that has been brought under the spell of a mysterious interloper nothing is quite as it seems. Dionysos may appear as man or, as seen by Pentheus a ‘bull leading me in procession [with] horns growing out of your head’,  entranced ‘menead[s] sitting happily  working at little tasks’ are also capable of pulling ‘a calf to pieces as it bellowed alive in her bare hands’. Thebes itself is lit by two suns/sons; one for those who see and one those who do not.  In this world how can we be sure enough of what we know for anything to feel definite.

Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel face off in Bakkhai Almeida Theatre Photo credit Marc BrennerAnne Carson’s decision is just one small part of a superb translation. It follows her exceptional reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone for Ivo Van Hove. In all the plaudits heading for Ben Whishaw’s central performance and Orlando Gough’s magnificent composition for the Chorus, Carson’s contribution should not be underestimated. If her translation of Antigone stripped backed much of the poetic, Bakkhai feels more of a hybrid. If it uses a simplified language that allows a naturalness of speech within Thebes that is much in keeping with the modern world – Pentheus’ order to ‘go to Teiresias’ little outpost and bulldoze it’ could come from any age – then upon Mt Cithaeron the language changes in order to retain the sense of ancient rites and rituals.

It feels that this approach to the writing is aligned with James McDonald’s vision of the play. Transformation seems to be at the heart of McDonald’s approach. Language transforms depending on place.

The arrival of this mysterious stranger is the catalyst for a series of transformations. Pentheus and Dionysos are both sons of Thebes but equally they are two halves of one person. Dionysos is the explosion of all that Pentheus has repressed, in himself and in the society he governs. We feel the yearning of the populace when the shepherd, despite terror at what he has witnessed, recounts how Dionysos ‘gave the gift of wine to men: why, without wine we’ve no freedom from pain. Without wine there’s no sex. Without sex life isn’t worth living’. This is both act of narration and reproach for Pentheus.

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Watch a teaser trailer


An assault on the ears: Reviews in handy podcast format

It was probably inevitable that after spending three years forcing diligent readers to consume my witterings through their eyeballs, I would look to find an even easier way to force my views upon people. Handily the perfect opportunity has arrived and all Civilian Theatre had to do was show up.

Earlier this month I went to see the excellent Oresteia at the Almeida Theatre. It is the first part of Rupert Goold’s ‘Almeida Greeks’ season, which will also include The Bakkhai (with Ben Whishaw) and Medea (with Kate Fleetwood). Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy of plays concerning the curse of the House of Atreus has been condensed into one super-play lasting 3hr40min. The time may put a lot of people off, but luckily the podcast is a mere 10min – a much easier proposition.

Civilian Theatre will be writing a more detailed article in due course on Oresteia, but until then you can fix your lugholes on this:

As Yet Unnamed Theatre Podcast (either listen to the whole thing, or the review of Oresteia is about 14min in).

Also taking part was Tim Watson (Host and,  Phil from the West End Whingers (, Gareth James, (, Julie Raby (

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

Onto the West End

With the Almeida Theatre putting out a trailer advertising its West End transfer of the fabulously entertaining King Charles III, and with what appears to be most of the original cast intact – including, crucially, Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles, Oliver Cris as William and Lydia Wilson as Kate – it seems a good time to revisit Civilian Theatre’s review from the Almeida run.

Oliver Cris has been pulling double duty on the satire front this year, as he hops back from playing a hapless policeman in the National’s Great Britain into an eerily pitch-perfect William, whilst Lydia Wilson reprises her Lady Macbeth-fuelled Kate. Lydia Wilson also has previous form in such matters, having come to attention of people outside of theatre-land with her role in Charlie Brooker’s most memorable Black Mirror (yes the one where the PM has *ahem* relations with a pig). However for those more conversant with plays, she has also been seen in Cheek by Jowl’s excellent ‘Tis pity she’s a whore and Sarah Kane’s Blasted

<<Read Civilian Theatre’s review of King Charles III>>

Watch the trailer:

<p><a href=”″>King Charles III West End Trailer | Almeida Theatre, London</a> from <a href=””>Almeida Theatre</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Book tickets here

Big Brother: Doubleplusgood?

1984 – Headlong @ Almeida Theatre, until 29 March 2014 (Tickets)

In the accompanying text to Headlong’s adaptation of 1984, they state that ‘Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan […] explore how Orwell’s novel is as applicable to the here and now as it ever was’ whilst the online trailer (below) draws on quotes from Bradley Manning and The Telegraph to make a clear link between the book and the current debate over surveillance culture.

In light of this the most surprising, and indeed pleasing, thing about Headlong’s production is how little it explicitly aligns itself with a modern world environment. Whilst Icke and MacMillan have played with form and function to add to a richer audience experience than would be allowed from a book that channels itself through the perspective of just one character, it is set within a world that far more closely resembles that imagined by Orwell than our current technology driven present.

This comes as a relief, as the idea of merging Orwell with modern society seems wholly too obvious and more than a little trite for a company who have carved out a reputation for purposefully innovative takes on 1984_Image_Headlong at the Almeida heavyweight texts. Orwell’s book may have something to say about the dangers of allowing any one party to exert control over society but to try and parallel this with the use of modern surveillance techniques in democracies is facile and only serves to undermine the potency of his argument.

Indeed if the examples that Runciman highlights in his review of The Snowdon Files is an accurate picture then it may be possible for governments to gather information on pretty much anyone but the idea that they have any sort of competence to use it to manage history and through it control society comes across as laughable. The reality is that our general contempt for politicians is so great that the only way that they could get us to believe that 2 + 2 = 5 is to insist upon us that 2 + 2 = 4.

Headlong 1984The entire existence of the internet – and with it websites like Wikileaks – serves to undermine the notion that Orwell’s book could become reality in a society as it currently exists. The world is too globally networked to allow a political organisation to control the flow of information in the way that Orwell envisioned; even in countries that use firewalls it is still relatively easy to get around censored sites. Big Brother may well be watching us but that does not mean that Big Brother is controlling us.

So it comes as a relief to discover that the computer on which Winston toils away to reshape history is an item that seems strangely out-of-kilter within Chloe Lamford’s set design, which evokes that late-Communist feel of a country industrially advanced but only holding its infrastructure together with threads. The communal canteen at the Ministry could be from any 1970’s public sector building whilst the grainy feel of the video through which we watch Winston and Julia’s secret trysts, and the voyeuristic overtones it brings with it,  inevitably recalls The Conversation and the paranoia that runs through Alan J.Pakula’s The Parallax View and Klute.

That we may be reminded of the likes of Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda brings home a deliberate and brutal reality about the lives of Winston and Julia; that ordinary people, the archetypal Party drones, are rather bland and uninteresting, that desires and thoughts are mostly mundane and not the unique, world-changing inspiration that we like to believe. They may yearn for change but they will make do with chocolate and real coffee.

As we rail isolated against the system and plot great change from within who would want to admit to being more like Winston, with his ill-fitting vest tops and sweaty lank hair nervily considering whether or not to write a diary, rather than Beatty’s journalist, immaculately coiffured and square-jawed, uncovering conspiracies that go all the way to the top.

All of this is brilliantly exposed by O’Brien (Tim Dutton) who shows Winston the sad truth about his grand love affair; its furtive and grubby nature feeding a narrative that saw their radicalism only leading as far as their own desires. O’Brien levels the charge of solipsism at Winston, and the real terror of Headlong’s production is the struggle to disagree with the accusation. Their love, so important and all-consuming moments before, now seems so small; the world may have moved for them but they did not move the world even an inch.

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Watch the trailer