‘Presume not that I am the thing I was’ in Lloyd’s radical new Henry IV

Henry IV – Donmar Warehouse, until 29 November 2014 (tickets)

So here we are back at the Donmar Warehouse, back in a Phyllidia Lloyd production, back in prison, back with an all-female cast and, sadly, back to howls of protest emanating from the comment boards. Despite the compelling evidence of last year’s Julius Caesar for the benefits of seeing women perform ‘male’ roles, including Harriet Walter putting in the performance of the year as Brutus, little seems to have changed and so the old Harriet Walter (King Henry) 2 Photo credit Helen Maybanks.jpgarguments have been dusted off and trotted back out.

To incite further ire Phyllidia Lloyd has radically altered Shakespeare’s original text. This is not a snip here, a cut there. This is Henry IV Parts I and II, totalling almost six hours of performance, smashed together and pared down to 120 minutes. That really is an audacious move.

It is also a smart one. May directors have discovered how difficult it is to change Shakespeare by working around the fringes; if you are looking to show something new within something old then far better to prune the excess foliage until what is obscured below is revealed. Shakespeare’s talent did on occasion lead to an explosion of brilliance, his imagination working so fast that one play can contain more plot strands than most writers can work into several; this is his genius but the audience, unpicking the complexity of plot and language, can lose focus on anything that isn’t centre-stage.

Henry IVIn Henry IV productions almost all exclusively focus on the Hal/Falstaff dynamic; it is the interesting complexity of the prince we know will become the near-mythic Henry V, and his relationship with the greatest tragicomic creation of his age. However in Lloyd’s reduction we see this become a play that focuses on the dynamics of a father with two sons, and a son with two fathers.

With Harriet Walter as the dying king it makes sense to ensure that the most is made of an actor of her calibre. By barely cutting Henry IV’s lines, it makes the role far more central to the play. Much of Falstaff’s activities outside of Hal’s orbit are cut and this results in a balancing of Falstaff and Henry IV and creates two much clearer allegiances for Hal.

The resulting time is given over to the rebels, and in particular Jade Anouka’s sparky Hotspur – a brilliant performance that brings to vivid life Frank Kermode’s description of Hotspur’s lines being ‘anti-poetry, a contempt for poetry as flummery and affectation’. By stripping the text it aligns Hotspur and Hal as the son the king wished he had and the son that he wished he hadn’t. It also allows room for Hotspur’s wife, Lady Percy (Sharon Rooney), to shine. The scenes with her husband and mourning his death are often lost amid the action but here they are in focus and Rooney gives a heartbreakingly tender performance of someone who loses a husband and then desperately seeks to avoid losing a father.

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Welcome to the world of tomorrow, today

Privacy – Donmar Warehouse, booking until 31 May 2014

Privacy or, according to the Donmar’s listing, PRIVACY. Pri-vacy or Priv-acy. In James Graham’s latest play, which follows the unexpectedly huge success of this This House at the National, everything is up for debate. Indeed the amount of audience interaction and feedback means far more democracy is on display in Privacy than in This House’s exploration of parliamentary backchannel deal-making.

It does Privacy a disservice to think of it as a ‘play’; judging against these criteria one has to acknowledge that the fictional narrative is rather slight. The idea of a playwright writing a play about the subject and entering Privacy at Donmar WarehouseSocratic dialogue with those he encounters is lazy for a playwright at this level. We have been living in post-modern culture for over a quarter of a century and this is approach is pretty much meta-101. From a purely textual perspective Privacy is also hindered by the fact that this fictional plot is far less interesting than the people he talks to and the subjects discussed.

Privacy may be sold as a play but in truth it is less play and more a fascinatingly structured lecture that has been fictionalised. It is not dissimilar to the most entertaining TED Talks and the purpose of the evening is more edutainment than anything else. In this environment the characters of writer, director and psychiatrist are entirely secondary to, and at the service of, the relying of information from source to audience.

The structure is familiar to Black Watch; it interweaves verbatim dialogue with dramatized situations. It is unclear how much, if any, of Graham’s work comes from first hand interviews and what has been lifted from other sources, for instance much of the detailing of the Guardian’s involvement in the Snowdon affair and in the destruction of the hard drives felt as if it had been previously recorded elsewhere.

privacy donmar warehouseThis weaving of sources is an entirely appropriate academic technique for synthesising information but without the accompanying intellectual rigour it leaves the production open to criticism over how it represents its material. Theatre does, and should, present partial viewpoints; it is not the role of theatre to present unbiased reportage. Indeed the best verbatim theatre – the tribunal plays produced at the Tricycle under Nicolas Kent – used unbiased reportage to create a clearly partial view.

However Graham’s play sits in a grey area where we are invited to take a view on how shocking it is what the government and big business get up to, and we are meant to feel it is strengthened by including ‘real experts’ speaking ‘real dialogue’. It is a fast-paced and highly enjoyable journey but on reflection doubts over whether it is a substantial whole begin to creep in.

It is a rather superficial gaze on the issues – perhaps reflected in the fact that many of the accounts are given by politicians, journalists and the omni-present Shami Charkrabarti, pretty much the epitome of the liberal media darling. These are all people used to speaking in sound bites, regurgitating complex issues into digestible chunks.

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Luton: Immortalised

The Same Deep Water As Me – Donmar Warehouse, until 28 September 2013

Set in Luton, featuring personal injury lawyers and conventionally played, Nick Payne’s The Same Deep Water As Me at first glance appears to have an underwhelming premise to follow his sparkly original and hugely successful Constellations. However Nick Payne, despite young in years, has already begun to establish a formidable reputation as a playwright with an ear for the patter of the everyday voices and so it proves with a solid follow-up to one of the more original plays of recent years.

Mark Wooten

Payne’s talent goes farther than the mimicking of the everyday, it is also possible to see him channelling the distinctive voices of the late 20th century. There was a Stoppardian verve to the writing that grounded Constellations and it  is impossible to watch The Same Deep Water As Me and not recognise the muscularity of Mamet lying below the surface.

It is rare, in British playwriting, to find someone who can so convincingly evoke the language of those that may be labelled the working middle-classes. His characters seem to spring from a previously untapped well of working professionals; strong working-class roots but perhaps the first to make use of widening university provision.

By and large Payne writes characters who are near-invisible on the stage, and who are often routinely talked-down and patronised by those who see themselves as the guardians of culture. They do not have a socialist chip on their shoulders but they also are not part of the institutional elites; in short they are not political but are fiercely individual and rarely do playwrights try to illuminate the inner-lives and desires.

At times Payne’s writing is reminiscent of a well-crafted stand-up routine; turning ordinary lives into something faintly surreal and highlighting the hidden absurdity’s in established routines. Rather than grotesque caricatures, Payne finds humanity in the everyday.  A repeat call-back to Greggs – a very modern class touchstone – under Payne’s gentle probing reveals glimpses of a hidden world where relationships develop and life experience is shared. We find the quality of a steak slice is quantified and rated with the same precision that foodies reserve for bread and olives.

The shadow of Mamet is impossible to ignore and these is reinforced through both plot and structure. The ambulance-chasing, insurance scams of In The Same Deep Water As Me operates in a similar moral universal to Glengarry Glen Ross.  They both operate within a macho-office-based culture; they are full of people who are not operating at the margins but are still having to scrap and scramble to survive.

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All change at the top

Macbeth - Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart in Rupert Goold's Production

Excellent news this week as Rupert Goold was announced the new artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, following Michael Attenborough hugely successful tenure. Now firmly established as one of the most influential theatres that bridge the gap between the West End and the regions, it is difficult to remember that 11 years ago the Almeida was running a sizable deficit and that Attenborough not only turned this on its head but did so whilst also almost doubling the number of new productions.

Rupert Goold has a challenge on his hands but the freedom of the role, and his own prior knowledge of the space through working on Headlong co-productions, allows him to enter on a firm footing. His own uniquely stylistic flair, as recognisable in theatre as Tarintino is in film, make the possibility of creative control over an entire programme a most enticing one proposition for the audience.

Goold’s Macbeth was praised to the heavens by critics on both sides of the Atlantic; brilliantly designed, blessed with the stand-out performance from Patrick Stewart’s illustrious career and one more than equalled by Kate Fleetwood’s splendid Lady Macbeth. Goold’s production manages to maintain the golden thread that so often eludes directors of style; every element contributes something to the whole enabling the sum to be so much greater than the parts. Most pleasingly, it is also available for anyone to see as it was expertly captured for the BBC; rather sickeningly Goold proves himself to be equally at home in this medium, and the transfer retains a spirit and vitality that was sadly lacking in the televised version of Hamlet with David Tennant.

The extent to which I think this is seminal viewing is the fact that I am prepared to suggest buying something from Amazon in order to do so – boycott be damned, it is just too good.

Rupert Goold is only the latest in a line of seat-swapping that has amounted to a seismic shift in the theatrical landscape. The last couple of years have come to feel like a pivotal moment for the next generation to pick up the baton from their predecessors. Coinciding with a new political landscape, we are seeing the emergence of a new wave of directors and producers who will be charged with guiding British theatre through the murky quagmire of reduced funding and a more oppositional approach to politics.

It is too early to say but it could mean a return to more overt political dramas. One of the problems of the Labour regime is that they remained difficult to criticise following the experience of almost twenty years of EnronConservative power – and even more so when they pumped more money into the cultural landscape than it had seen in years. Where Labour were criticised, most excoriatingly by David Hare, was on foreign policy, or more accurately their foreign policy in Iraq – less was said about interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo.

During the Labour years it is hard to think of many plays that really sought to tackle domestic policy until the financial meltdown made everyone realise how far the country had sleepwalked into inequality under the watchful eyes of a supposedly centre-left government. One can only hope that the shake-up can also dislodge the art of the politics and reveal a new generation of dramatists less concerned with the ‘I’ than the ‘We’.


The most high profile, and contested, position up-for-grabs was that to succeed Michael Boyd as Artistic Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Whilst the National Theatre has more power and money, it is hard to dispute the RSC still carries the most prestige – flying the flag for Shakespeare and under Boyd’s leadership emerging from the mire with a reinvigorated sense of self. It is questionable whether anyone other than Gregory Doran had a look in, and the press release is rather telling ‘‘Greg Doran is a perfect choice for the RSC and is well known to all our audiences. His long history with the Company[…]’. It contains every impression of wanting to promote from within and maintaining a sense of continuity in a company that has too often lost its focus. Gregory Doran is without doubt an exceptional director but could well be seen as a safe pair of hands. However is this a bad thing when dealing with Shakespeare? Every year there will be attempts to reinvent Shakespeare for the modern age, most will be terrible and a few will not. In many ways it is much harder to breathe life into more traditional staging that are more interested in the text than in assuming what Shakespeare may have meant the text to mean.

Continuing outside of London, but yet further North, the National Theatre of Scotland has announced that Laurie Sansom will take over from Vicky Featherstone – herself off to the Royal Court to keep the merry-go-round spinning. The National Theatres’ of Wales and Scotland are probably the most important, and successful, developments in British theatre over the last 15 years. Vicky Featherstone was a hugely influential part of that culture of success, and was instrumental in bringing the widely acclaimed Black Watch to the stage, and the hugely entertaining Alan Cumming one-man Macbeth.

Vicky Featherstone

It is a shame that her departure was partly overshadowed by claims of a parochial attitude among the Theatre’s management but one hopes that they Royal Court will be the chief beneficiary of the time that she has spent outside of London. As an added intrigue, the poaching of Lucy Davies from the National Theatre of Wales to be an executive director at the Royal Court means that both have suffered a significant loss of leadership and one hopes that a firm hand is kept on the rudder of both organisations.

And the final move, and probably the most written about, is that of Josie Rourke taking the reigns at the Donmar Warehouse. Already a year into the programme we have seen an interesting array of productions that, if not setting the world alight are at least suggestive of a non-confirmist mindset. Durrenmatt’s The Physicists is not a play that has aged gracefully but it is still good to see it revived, whilst an all-female Julius Caesar may have caught some predictable flak but it provides challenge and most importantly provides new insight into the group dynamic of political leadership that a traditional cast production cannot achieve. It does feel like we are still waiting for Rourke to stamp her authority on her tenure but it also feels like that production is not far away.

Say hello to Julia Caesar

Julius Caesar – Donmar Warehouse, until 09 February 2013 Book Tickets

The amount of column inches generated in discussion of Phylida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar would be admirable if the content of the articles had done much more than highlight just how deeply conservative the British theatre scene really is and how it still runs far behind Europe when it comes to pushing new boundaries.

It is this reviewer’s opinion that such arguments are so lacking in depth that they brook little need for response. Indeed the best rejoinder is to point across London to the Apollo Theatre where Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry are currently commanding plenty of column inches of their own but mainly on account of their acting abilities rather than any discussion of gender.

The usual argument is that an all-male casts generates its legitimacy through ‘tradition’ but this is somewhat undermined by the plaudits given to the RSC’s superb all-Black production of Julius Caesar, or by idly speculating whether Rylance and Fry are performing under torchlight and with an unruly audience urinating in the stalls.

An all-female production is necessary due to the rather obvious point that Shakespeare, like the majority of pre-20th century playwrights, did not write many great parts for women and considering we have a much greater attachment to the classics than our European neighbours – should we really exclude so much fine actors from some of the greatest roles in the English language?

Indeed let us return to Shakespeare himself to labour the point yet further: ‘the play’s the thing, Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King’ Stretching this laborious point to breaking possibly, it reminds us that the purpose of the play is to elicit reaction, to be a delivery mechanism for showing to the audience something that it wasn’t expectingOn this score it is hard to deny that Phylida Lloyd has more than succeeded.

So the reasonable question to ask is whether the decision to use an all-female cast works. Broadly the answer is yes but not with unnecessary problems that seem to have resulted from an attempt to pre-empt questions over the casting decisions.

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Science under the microscope in Durrenmatt’s The Physicists

The Physicists – Donmar Warehouse, until the 21 July 2012 

Thomas Midgley Jr is not a name near to many people’s lips when asked about the most important scientific innovators of the twentieth century. Seemingly destined to be remembered solely as a speciality question in a pub quiz would appear a strange fate for a man whose contributions to science shaped the world and led him to being described as having a ‘greater environmental impact on the planet than any single organism in history’.

It is then unfortunate for Thomas Midgley Jr that the impact described was both an accidental consequence of his inventiveness and wholly negative in almost every conceivable aspect; for Thomas Midgely Jr is the man who came with the idea of adding lead to petrol. Not content with this world health hazard, his second invention was close to catastrophic, as he found a way to improve the process of refrigeration through a compound called Freon. In so doing he successfully managed to invent CFCs.

One can only imagine that after those two disastrous attempts at improving the world, poor Thomas Midgely Jr would have a great deal of sympathy for Johann Wilhelm Möbius, the scientist at the centre of Dürrenmatt’s farcical satire that poses questions on the burden of responsibility on scientists and the ability of state to understand and manage scientific developments. Indeed Möbius is so concerned with the potential capacity for destruction in his inventions that he decides it is better to feign insanity so that he is able to work on pure physics well away from the overbearing hand of the state.

Dürrenmatt wrote The Physicists in 1961, prefiguring the Cuban Missile Crisis but at a time when tensions between the Soviet Union and the West were reaching a new peak. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remained fresh in the mind 15 years on, as societies across the world lived in the shadow of two countries committed to the real-politics of mutually assured destruction.

Charles Spencer, writing in The Telegraph, challenges the play’s value forty years on. It is a reasonable point at a time where the conflict between superstates has faded and the prospect of nuclear war has receded to be replaced by a more existential threat of individual extremists, dirty bombs and cyber-warfare. Josie Rourke’s production is never quite able to square this circle and throughout there remains the nagging sensation that one is watching a period piece; a very well-crafted and carefully staged absurdist drama that is fascinating but ultimately as clinical and sterile as its setting.

That is not to say that it cannot be enjoyed on its own merits. The quality is to the level that has come to be expected from a Donmar production. John Heffernman is superb in capturing the duality of Möbius’ character; drawing out the dignified trauma of being self-aware enough to understand that his brilliance can never realise its potential in a world where it will be handled by those with power but no understanding, but Heffernman also reveals the arrogance that afflicts many geniuses and causes them to underestimate the skill of the opponents, in this case hastening the final tragic denouement.

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