Cillian Murphy mixes characters in stodgy Irish stew

Misterman – National Theatre, Selected dates until May 28 2012

Watching Cillian Murphy’s Thomas Magil, Inishfree’s one-man self-appointed morality committee, in Enda Walsh’s Misterman, I found myself transported back to two days previously to the Barbican where Cate Blanchett was the actor and Boho Strauss the playwright.  The parallels, as both plays hit London in the run-up to the Cultural Olympiad, perhaps reveal more about the process of staging a difficult play in the current climate than they reveal about the plays themselves.

The heavily-advertised cherry on top of each production is a bona fide Hollywood actor but not in the classic star mould that so often has the critics sharpening their knives. Both began their career in another country and grew up with one foot in the theatre rather than the Hollywood Hills. Neither has fully embraced the movie system despite Blanchett winning an Oscar for her role as Katharine Hepburn in Scorsese’s The Aviator; as close to embodying Hollywood royalty as it gets. Murphy has never embraced his potential leading man status whilst building a body of work that includes the huge Christopher Nolan blockbusters of the Dark Knight and Inception.

It is intriguing that in their return to stage both have chosen roles that focus almost exclusively on the isolation of the leading characters. Blanchett’s Lotte is a woman cast adrift from society following the break-up of her marriage; she is unable to effectively anchor herself and drifts along engaging in surreal encounters with friends and families that only heighten her growing isolation.

On the surface Murphy’s Thomas is suffering from an imposed isolation. He is literally rather than metaphorically alone; forced into making conversation with tape-recorded voices. However even in these interactions it is clear that Thomas was always out of kilter with those around him. It is a fantastical set-up but there is realism within the structure of the conversations that sets it apart from Big and Small.

It is difficult not to speculate what led the actors to these roles. They are not well-known plays and it seems unlikely that either would enjoy the same positioning and budget without their leads. The roles allow a freedom to an actor that is rarely granted, even in the theatre, but under the surface they are also strangely inflexible and a little one-note. As neither play really sketches out anything more than a caricature of secondary characters, the actors have no-one to play off and at times it can feel like an intense therapy session.

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Alice’s Germanic Wonderland

Big and Small – Sydney Theatre Company, Barbican Theatre until April 29 2012

Boho Strauss’1970’s play Big and Small has been given a new translation by every A-level student’s favourite writer, Martin Crimp, and a major box office draw has been added in the form of Cate Blanchett. Sporting a spare but striking visual motif that weaves in moments from Alice in Wonderland, the resulting production is crisp and clean but remains a mixed-bag; both in terms of structure and in terms of quality. Director Benedict Andrews introduces some lovely elements throughout but it often feels that he is having to work very hard with not a great deal of material – although it should be pointed out that ‘not a great deal of material’ manages to fill over 2½ hours of stage time.

The main challenge for the production is its unevenness; a fragmented, dream-like structure is an appropriate choice for a play charting an individual’s experience of social alienation, and a lack of an obvious direct narrative helps capture the essence of isolation rather than the reasons behind it. It is attempting a theatre of poetry rather than a theatre of stories.

The unevenness relates to a lack of balance; the first half feels ponderous and slow, a series of scenes acting as snapshots of a multi-occupancy house induced a level of tedium due to scene changes that took longer than the actual scenes, and there is a free-wheeling lack of focus that suggests a play that is struggling to understand what it wants to be.

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