“He’s loved of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes”

Hamlet – Barbican Theatre, until 31 October 2015 (returns and day tickets only)

“He’s loved of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes”

Shakespeare, as is so often the case, provides the perfect introduction to the matter. He may have been giving voice to Claudius’ concern about how to deal with Hamlet following the death of Polonius, but these fifteen words pithily capture the frenzy surrounding Benedict and the Bard.

Whilst I do not intend to rehash the countless articles, Twitter-debates and journalistic etiquette that preceded opening night, one cannot ignore the implications of the media circus for the production. That the show was going to sell tickets was never in doubt, but the collective madness that took hold shocked everyone. Cumberbatch may be a star name but the West End is hardly lacking in this department; Oscar winner and genuine Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper could be seen in his boxers in The Elephant Man, while John Goodman and Damien Lewis are flexing their stage muscles in Mamet. Both shows sold well but not close to the stratospheric demand for Hamlet.

I disregard the casual elitism of those who seem to fear the masses will come bearing placards professing their undying love, wolf-whistle the sweet prince and general treat the experience like feeding time at the zoo. My view is that if just one-tenth of the near 40,000 people who bought tickets decide that theatre might be for them then I don’t really care if the only reason they had for going was because they live in a house built of discarded copies of Sherlock fanzines.

However we must consider how audience expectations and the surrounding pressures may have impacted on the production. In the theatre we allow the illusion of being outside of reality, but it would be naïve to believe that Lyndsey Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch and all others involved did not feel the weight of hype pressing down on them. Productions face a difficult problem when the audiences’ focus is so clearly on one man; they are attempting to perform Hamlet the play, but many are watching for Hamlet the man.

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Austere Agony in Antigone

Antigone – Barbican, until 28 March 2015 (tickets – returns only)

It seems that London theatres cannot get enough of the ancient Greeks. Last year we were treated to a contemporary Medea at the National and a relatively classical Electra at the Old Vic. The Credit Jan Versweyweld Almeida have announced a season containing The Bakkhai, Oresteia and, tantalisingly, a chance to watch Rupert Goold direct his wife, Kate Fleetwood, in another Medea (and one would love to have Freud’s opinion on that choice!).

Sandwiched between them, but certainly not squeezed out, is what can only be described as a major theatre event; Ivo van Hove – fresh off the universally acclaimed A View From The Bridge – directing Juliette Binoche in Sophocles’ Antigone.

Of all the Greek tragedies it is Antigone that appears the most timeless. The moral dilemma at its heart is as immediately relevant today as it was when it was written 2500 years ago. It is a staggering achievement of simplicity and a constant reminder of the universal nature of human experience. Whilst society is broadly unrecognisable from the small slave-owning city-states of Greece in 5th century BC, the central compelling issue – of whether a person can hold a moral law above that of the state – remains at the heart of many contemporary debates.

Ivo van Hove works with a minimalist’s clarity and sense of purpose to bridge a gap between the ancient and the modern. He is supported through Jan Versweyweld’s set design that splits the large Barbican space into two distinct areas. The downstage is kitted out in a sleek, functional contemporary urban style, whilst the upstage is starkly bare. Both locations give no hint to place to emphasise the universalism of the narrative.

Van Hove further stresses the ageless, placeless nature of Antigone’s dilemma by projecting huge, abstract scenes onto the back wall. A huge circular cut-out at the start of the play gives the impression of a solar eclipse – a traditional signifier of the intervention of the gods – before slowly rolling aside to let light stream in and bath the stage in a clinical brightness. It is a production where everyone’s actions will come under the microscope and be subjected to judgement; by the gods, by the playwright and by the audience.

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An absurd tale of love and puppets

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It) – Dmitry Krymov Lab @ Barbican Theatre, 14 November 2014

First seen in the UK as part of the 2012 Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, the Dmitry Krymov Lab return to the Barbican with their very loose adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The title, a cheekily knowing pun, hints that audiences shouldn’t arrive expecting a traditional approach to Shakespeare and, good as their word, the production bares only a faint resemblance to the original. Stripped away are all elements of the lovers’ escape to the forest and the night’s fantastical adventures; the focus instead is entirely on the rude mechanicals performance of Pyramus and Thisbe to the Court in the play’s final scene.MSND Barbican

Yet one cannot dare to perform this play without a sense of the fantastical and this wonderfully imaginative company have inserted a puckish spirit that runs through the production – witness the fountain that unexpectedly soaks most of those in the front of the stalls as the company bumble onto the stage, or the inept ballerinas that close the show and positively dare the audience to laugh at Dream-4-2012-360x541children; these are the kind of mischievous pranks laced with faintest tincture of actual malevolence that Robin Goodfellow would certainly have approved of.

It is also a truly fantastical production thanks to the skillfulness of the performers. Hidden amongst the apparently dishevelled cast are talents that incorporate sublime circus skills, puppetry and singing that brings life and emotional register to a production that always seems one step from disaster. Often in productions the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is little more than a parody of amateur acting troupes and we see actors playing at being bad actors; here we see actors who genuinely resemble craftsmen putting on a show to their best of their ability. We are drawn in by their passion for their craft and as a result within all the comic effects we begin to care for these absurd puppet caricatures of the lovers.

For all their talents what stops the Lab becoming another Cirque De Soleil is that there is always a purpose underpinning the action. They come up with wonderful ways to express ideas but they are nearly always tied to a clear purpose. With companies like Cirque De Soleil everything is delivered with such a ponderous self-importance that it fatally weighs down anything of substance but here their exists a joyously absurd spirit to the production that means it is impossible not to be swept along.

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Humanity put on display

The Wild Duck – Barbican Theatre, until 01 November (tickets)

The last time I watched an Australian theatre company was when Sydney Theatre Company, boasting the talents of Cate Blanchett, Benedict Andrews and Martin Crimp, pitched up at the Barbican with a rather underwhelming production of Boho Strauss’ Big and Small.

Two years later Benedict Andrews’ star has reached the stratosphere with a highly-lauded Three Sisters being followed by the smash-hit of the summer; the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Meanwhile it is time for another Australian-import, as the Belvoir Sydney take part in the International Ibsen season at the Barbican, to go alongside invited productions of Peer Gynt and An Enemy of the People. Over the course of a tumultuous ninety minutes they prove they can certainly hold their own against strong competition.

01. Belvoir Sydney, The Wild Duck, Anita Hegh credit Heidrun LöhrSimon Stone has taken scissors to Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and, in stripping out exposition and characters, has created an entirely modern, rigorously taut and emotional devastating portrait of a family in collapse. In short, tightly drawn scenes he presents with discomforting acuity the fragility that surrounds us.

Portrait is a carefully chosen word, and Stone appears to continually have in mind Hjalmar’s job as photographer. Scenes are punctuated by a sharp cut to blackout in a move that apes the flash of a photographer’s bulb, and which serves to sear images into the mind. Direction is highly stylised and all of Ibsen’s naturalism is stripped away. The play is presented within a glass box that suggests a photographic studio and also works as a specific commentary on theatre’s ability to put human beings on display for the audience’s consumption. Trapped within the glass box, the characters come to resemble animals in a zoo – living entirely in their own world but permanently open to an unseen audience.

It is only at the very end of the play that characters venture out of their glass prison, and it is this final scene that will break even the hardest of hearts. After the rapidity of scenes building up to a crescendo that it is inevitable as the gun on Hedda Gabbler’s wall, we suddenly have the quiet calm. The storm has blown itself out and the survivors slowly, quietly regroup to survey the damage and tally-up the losses. Brendan Cowell’s Hjalmar and Anita Hegh’s Gina present the raw reality of humans bereft and broken by circumstance. Here Hakon’s macular degeneration acts as both crucial plot point and metaphor for the way that Hjalmar and Gina must now grope their way blindly towards the future.

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Knocking down the Berlin (fourth) Wall

An Enemy of the People – Schaubühne Berlin @ Barbican (24 – 28 September 2014)

They don’t make many like they make Thomas Ostermeier. That he is not on the tip of the tongue of British theatre-goers says more about the appallingly low number of productions that make it across the channel and the limited tours when if the even get here. An Enemy of the People was sold out for its five performances at the Barbican and I am certain if there was the bravery to finance a small tour then people would come. How can people71c4ddf9-d738-459e-9cb0-b6f09f73e98d-460x276 learn what they like if they never get the chance to see anything different?

The glorious thing about watching an Ostermeier production is that while you may not know quite what you will get, you know it will still be a quintessentially Ostermeier affair. For, yes, we are back in the realm of the director as  auteur. Cue much huffing and puffing from the comment boards and cue rapturous, and occasionally unthinking, applause from everyone else. An Enemy of the People is the latest to hit the Barbican and follows on from a radical Hamlet that tore down almost every Shakespearian convention and reinvented the play from the grave up.

T1Ostermeier seems to be a man who will be anything but be dull. He brings his own hyperactivity to the text and energises performances far past what audiences should find comfortable; Hamlet clocked in at 168 minutes without an interval, and An Enemy of the People doesn’t fall far short at 150. Yet the quality can be seen that, despite the ridiculous running time, the audience sat in rare rapt attention, with not a rustle or toilet break to be seen disrupting the action.

An Enemy of the People is not without flaws and there is a nagging suspicion that Florian Borchmeyer commits serious logical fallacies in trying to bridge his adaptation of Ibsen’s text with a modern element that draws on the anonymous 2007 paper, The Coming Insurrection. However these flaws don’t destroy the integrity of the play and should be placed in the context of the vitality of the production and the creation of a theatrical experience that genuinely led to an enforced, and welcome, assessment of my own political values.

That the modern element fails is a shame due to the fact that Ibsen’s own play is so strangely contemporary that it barely needs updating to maintain its resonance. The idea of the small, righteous man standing up against a society that does not want to hear his truth has never gone out of fashion and has grown in stature in recent years, with the Young Vic staging a 1970’s set version last year.

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