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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Taking the train to ‘El

The El Train – Hoxton Hall, until 30 December 2013

Sometimes the venue is everything when it comes to theatre. It is hard to imagine watching Eugene O’Neill’s three short plays – that make up The El Train – about life in the Bronx from the comfort of plush velvet seats Ruth Wilson  & Zubin Varla-steve-in-the-web-the-el-train-hoxton-hall-photo-marc-brenner-408on Shaftesbury Avenue.  Yet sat on rickety wooden seats in the cold, draughty Hoxton Hall, hemmed in by the elbows of your neighbours, and in the heart of what was once the heart of the East End slums, O’Neill’s histrionic melodramas about the perils affecting life among the forgotten beings to make a kind of sense.

The atmospheric surroundings of Hoxton Hall is critical in making the whole concept of The El Train work at all. Outside in Hoxton and around Old Street – Britain’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ – it is difficult to appreciate just what life would have been like for those living in the same streets a century before, and so the location helps to ease the audience back to a time when earnest members of the Fabian society would deliver lectures on a range of esoteric subjects because they truly believed in the moral purpose of education for the bettering of the life of the working man; indeed it comes as little surprise to discover that for over twenty years the venue was run by the Quakers and linked to the temperance movement.

The El Train is a good way of seeing O’Neill writing in the style that would see him win two Pulitzer prizes and become Nobel laureate. A passionate writer that does for the American poor what had previously been highlighted in the U.K through works by George Bernard Shaw and Charles Dickens, O’Neill can be exhausting in the long form but in 20 minutes bursts his style can be rather invigorating.

O’Neill tends to be venerated by theatre critics but in his full-length plays he is often to be endured as much as enjoyed. He is as melodramatic as Tennessee Williams but without the entertaining southern gothic that makes Baby Doll and The Glass Menagerie such lurid delights. His plays, like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, mark some of the first developments of the narratives that are now seen as the great American themes and which dominate American drama and literature to the present day. However O’Neill’s work seems to lack the stringent naturalism that propels Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesman into the ranks of great drama.

Nicola Hughes - Mammy Saunders and Simon Coombs-dreamy-in-the-dreamy-kid-the-el-train-hoxton-hall-photo-marc-brenner-837However in the short-form of The El Train one is reminded that there is nothing inherently wrong with melodrama as a dramatic style but it is in the application that it often falls apart. Placed in the hands of strong actors, who commit wholeheartedly to the concept rather than act against it, the moral force of the work begins to shine through. And Ruth Wilson, after her turns in Anna Christie and A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar Warehouse, has proved herself a very fine actor indeed.

Wilson is a magnificent presence in the first piece; a monologue about a frustrated housewife and her alcoholic artistic husband, and which is by some margin the strongest of the three. She captures the very essence of a human teetering on the edge, struggling to free herself from the binds placed on her by both her husband and her own sense of pride.

The real skill of Wilson’s performance is how she understands the limitations of O’Neil’s writing to a modern audience. She doesn’t try to force the language but instead inhabits the whole character; Wilson brings the part alive with a nervous tension that can be read through the way her hands struggle to knot the front of her apron or pick at the wood chipping off the kitchen table. The weight of the burden upon her can be felt through the way that the corner of her mouth begins to pull down as she lists her husband’s various failings, and in the rigidity of her body every time her husband makes noise offstage.

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Writer vs Director vs Actor in Edward’s epic battle

Much of the critical reaction to the National’s production of Marlow’s Edward II has been withering, and for generally mild-mannered reviewers, bordering on the vitriolic. Leading the charge is, inevitably, Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail who suggests the ‘the only thing murdered in Joe Hill-Gibbins’s puerile, inept production is the play itself’ (ouch) and is followed, perhaps rather too stridently, by Tim Walker in The Telegraph who found ‘In almost 10 years of reviewingedward ii and gaveston: not your everyday production theatre, I doubt I have been confronted with a bigger load of indigestible old tosh’ and couldn’t help but the boot into the subsidised sector while he was at it; ‘the kind of production that simply could not happen in the commercial West End.’

Many people would doubtless agree with Mr Walker’s final sentence but the despair being aimed less at the National and more with eyes turned pointedly north of the river at the risk-averse nature of the private sector behemoths; happy to suck up the most profitable of the tried and tested subsidised productions before reverting back to a steady rotation between Noel Coward, Alan Ayckbourn and A.N Musical complete with X-Factor star.

If the overt agenda setting of Mr Walker’s column can be ignored– and the reference to‘comrades’ at the National rather says it all – it makes an important point in reminding us that the licence to put on a production this lavish ultimately comes from the public purse.

Joe Hill-Gibbin’s is a talented director who had great success at the Young Vic but his career trajectory is taking a worrying turn towards the excessive. A bright start led to a stint at the Young Vic where he created a stunning yet simpleEdwardII and Isabel revival of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant Beauty Queen of Leenane and directed the only Tennessee Williams production I have ever managed to enjoy (The Glass Menagerie).

He scored an unexpectedly huge hit with the fun but rather too hyper-kinetic The Changeling, which showed a suffusion of talent but equally there were times where a restraining hand might have been called for. It is troubling that on the grandest stage of all Hill-Gibbin’s has not only failed to adjust his style but that the flaws, rather than being flattened in the vast space of Olivier, have only been magnified.

Whilst we must allow artistic companies the freedom to make mistakes, watching Hill-Gibbin’s exuberant production reminded me of the wisdom of Bob Balaban’s protective mother in A Mighty Wind justifying the use of a Shetland pony to play polo on the grounds that ‘if he has to fall, he shouldn’t fall from so very high’.

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Masterful Richard II proves the BBC does ‘do’ Shakespeare

Richard II – BBC2 and BBC HD, until late July 2012

Settling into watching Richard II in glorious HD on the BBC last night it was difficult to ignore the Beeb’s previous ill-fated attempts to engage with ‘the Bard’. Whilst Civilian Theatre has a better opinion than most of the BBC’s attempt to film all the Shakespeare plays; where else could we see an Othello with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins as the leads, or a young Helen Mirren playing Rosalind in As You Like It and Imogen in Cymbeline – it is still hard to avoid the criticisms of wobbly sets and at times really duff stage-to-screen acting.

However the BBC’s reputation has been pulled significantly out of the mire after their last two adaptations of acclaimed stage productions – Tennant’s Hamlet and Stewart’s Macbeth- received sensitive transitions. Goold’s Macbeth in particular had a visual style that was magnificently assured given his background as a stage director. So hearing that he had been tasked with opening proceedings with Richard II did a lot to calm the nerves.

This calm was only reinforced by the sweeping shot across Richard II’s court; Ben Wishaw as Richard; Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt; Rory Kinnear as his son, Bolingbroke; the two David’s – Suchet and Morrisey – as father and son of York; and James Purefroy, steaming under armour as Mowbray. It goes without saying that once such accomplished actors are placed in position then there is little left to do but let them unfurl Shakespeare’s glorious language.

Richard II, compared to the rest of the history plays, is difficult. It has less of the cartoonish villain that makes Richard III such a crowd-pleaser; it lacks a comic core of Falstaff or the jingoism of Henry V. It is a wordy play about a poor king and bitter nobles. To make it worse Shakespeare, as a stylistic tic, vastly increases the amount of rhyming verse. For those untrained in plays of the era the language is often perceived to be a barrier – and Richard II does risk encapsulating everything that people think they dislike about Shakespeare – it is difficult, unnatural and can be hard to follow.

Goold and the cast respond to this challenge magnificently. For perhaps the first time we see that TV could have the edge of stage productions in some aspects. The history plays, far more than the tragedies and comedies, are complex, difficult and rely on a certain level of prior-knowledge that Shakespeare contemporaries would have had but that current audiences, for the most part, lack.

The ability to zoom-in, jump-cut and provide proper location filming – sweeping landscapes and equisite interiors that provide a true sense of time and place – thus provides an essential element in driving the plot. No longer must we scan the faces of a court scene to decide who Richard is castigating, the camera does this for us. Some may cry foul but this is both good TV – no-one needs completely static shots – and also good for accessibility. It is a period location but that does not mean that modern stylistic devices shouldn’t be used.

Goold deserves a huge amount of credit. This, and his Macbeth, were excellent adaptations that demonstrated he has a natural eye for balance and an assured touch. He may well work alongside a mighty fine cinematographer but having seen a number of his plays staged, it is clear that he has an innate understanding of composition and brings to the theatre filmic elements and here he proves he can work his artistry in reverse.

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Shakespeare’s Cymbeline finally turned into a true work of art

Cymbeline – Barbican Theatre

The Ninagawa Company, under the stewardship of Yukio Ninagawa, has built up a fearsome reputation in world theatre. They stand as the equal of any post-war company from Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop through to Chicago’s Steppenwolf, whilst stylistically they are as uniquely identifiable as anything from Peter Brook or Simon McBurney.

Famed for his Shakespeare, Yukio Ninagawa has turned his attention to one of the most problematic plays in the Bard’s canon; Cymbeline. It is a difficult play to love and one that comes packaged with all kinds of traps for a modern audience. The plot winds and winds and seems unsure of what it wants to be, containing elements of romance, farce and tragedy. It has simplistic plot devices, like cross-dressing and misidentification, reminiscent of earlier plays but also contains the heavily allegorical language and non-human elements, in this case Jupiter descending on an eagle, that place it alongside The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest as one of the later plays.

Frank Kermode described the play as a tragi-comic romance and suggests that it may have been an in-joke for audiences who would have had a much better understanding of the text and references to earlier plays. None of which makes it any easier for a modern audience to unpick the complexities of the plot.

Luckily going to see a Ninagawa production is to have your visual senses wrapped in cotton wool and taken on a journey where the simplicity of images masks the masterful craftsmanship working behind the scenes. The technical understanding of balance is superbly illustrated again and again throughout the evening; light and shade, simplicity and complexity, the tonality is in harmony so that everything works towards the whole and the audience is never aware of the mechanics. Like other Japanese traditions that have bewitched Europeans over the years, from woodcuts to sushi, the skill rests on the ability to hide an incredible complexity behind a deceptively simple front.

It is difficult to fairly assess the skill of the actors without speaking Japanese and since the production leans so heavily on the visual, the rest of this review will take a radical detour and will look to provide a sense of the evening through the images it has left behind.

You can choose any one of a number of plot strands to call the centre of Cymbeline. Above we see the romance at the heart of the play, that of Posthumus and Imogen, as they are parted and again as they are reunited. As is traditional in Shakespeare the lovers must face many barriers before finally winning through in the end. However the play is made problematic, particularly to a modern audience, by the fact that Posthumus acts in such an unreasonable manner for much of the play, doubting his wife’s fidelity almost as soon as he leaves England before hiring his servant to murder her. That kind of level of trust does not always lead to happy relationships.

As the beating heart of the play, Hiroshi Abe, as the exiled Posthumus, and Shinobu Otake’s Imogen, bring the romance to life despite spending most of the play separated. They draw out the character traits despite the language barrier, with Hiroshi embodying the stoic and duty-bound Posthumus,  accepting of the State’s decision to banish him before later preparing to sacrifice himself in realisation at the fate he believes he inflicted on Imogen.

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Olivier Awards 2012…and the winners are…

Tomorrow night sees the stars of the stage descend upon the Royal Opera House for what is arguably the biggest night in England’s (or perhaps more contentiously given the list of nominees – London’s) theatre world: the Laurence Olivier Awards. It will be possible to watch the event live via the red button on the BBC, or listen to Radio 2, from 19:30.

As is often the case the list of nominees make for interesting reading and arguably casts a brighter light on the theatre scene than the list of those who actually win. Rather than going through the complete list of the  runners and riders, a quick glance across the categories does raise some interesting talking points.

8 Key Questions

  1. In what can only be seen as a damning indictment of the non-subsidised West End stomach for risk-taking, the only nominated new play that premièred outside of the subsidised sector was an adaptation of the most famous of all Ealing comedies. Whilst well-received by the critics, is it not possible for a playwright to be allowed to stage new work in the West End (special exemptions for famous Hollywood actor/writers not withstanding)?
  2. Is it a thin year dramatically? Even the revivals don’t seem to have their usual vim. Hopefully Anna Christie will be recognised for its fine work and it will be up against a strong revival of Rattigan’s Flare Path; a playwright very much in vogue.  However Noises Off seems to be a rather populist choice when you consider the fine year the Donmar had with the rarely performed and excellently executed ‘Inadmissable Evidence’ directly following Anna Christie.
  3. Will London Road be able to withstand the Matilda charge? It lost out to populism at the Evening Standard Awards, and whilst Matilda is a fine and deserving winner in its own right isn’t it time that London Road was recognised for the stunningly brave and unique production it is (and for those who missed it first time, it is coming back to the Olivier this summer – a portent perhaps?)
  4. Can the Sheridan Smith success story continue? Everyone’s favourite 2 Pints of Lager…breakout star is up for a fairly unique double; after picking up Best Musical Actress at the first time of asking for Legally Blonde, Ms Smith will be hoping to make it two in two years for her fine performance in Flare Path. However competition is tough in a category that also includes Mark Addy, Bryony Hannah and Johnny Flynn; all of whom should be regarded as excellent contenders in their own right.
  5. Just how many can Matilda win? The remarkable story continues and you don’t fancy anyone coming up against them. Best new musical to edge out London Road? Bertie Cavill is surely a lock-in for Best Actor Musical. Does anyone have the heart to deny the Matilda’s their moment as Best Actress Musical? Paul Kaye could be on shakier ground as he is up against Katherine Kingsley’s Lina Lamont – a scene-stealing role if  ever there was one. And after all that there is a raft of technical awards that someone has to win.
  6. The Best Actress/Best Actor awards seem totally up for grabs. Desperately hope that the double-header Cumberbatch/Lee Miller is overlooked as Frankenstein wasn’t that great.  My personal preference would be a Ruth Wilson/Jude Law double for Anna Christie. However Douglas Hodge in Inadmissible Evidence would be a worth winner.
  7. What is the point, I mean really, what is the point of the BBC Radio 2 Oliver Audience Award when you have to chose between Jersey Boys /  Wicked / Les Freakin  Mis and Billy Elliot? How about giving us a write-in winner?
  8. How much more alive does theatre feel when you look at the nominees in Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre? Mogadishu and Roadkill could have been strong contenders in the main categories but here they feel punted to the sidelines.

And finally good luck to all the nominees.

Laurence Oliver Awards 2012