The Ruling Farce

The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios, until 11 April 2015 (Tickets

James McAvoy and Kathryn Drysdale in The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios. Credit: Jonas Persson

It is entirely possible that finance for this revival of Peter Barnes’ satire of the British class system was raised purely on the back of a one-sentence pitch: ‘enter James McAvoy riding a unicycle whilst wearing white underpants’.

It may well have been a tough sell otherwise, as The Ruling Class acts as an exemplar of the potential perils of reviving a near-forgotten play. Staged in 1968 it would have appeared as a topical satire that referenced the ideals of the summer of love and the pressures being place on the established elites by the social revolutions that rippled through the decade. Barnes’ sets an aristocratic establishment against the more hippyish virtues of McAvoy’s ‘JC’ – who has a particular fascination in bonding the pleasures of the spiritual and physical realms.

Credit: Jonas PerssonHowever by 2014 – with society bended to fit the tyranny of the financial markets and the ideals of the free-spirited long broken by an advertising industry that learnt it could get fat by selling homogenised difference – this world is almost unrecognisable from the one we ended living in.

While a play does not need to be relevant to be enjoyed, one must question why it has never seen a major revival since the Leeds Playhouse in 1983.  Given the canny programming of Jamie Lloyd’s critically and commercially successful Trafalgar Transformed seasons up to this point, it does seem like a curious choice.

However it turns out the play isn’t without interest. Whilst it is creaky and overlong – two and a half hours plus an interval for a satirical comedy? – there are several quite unexpected tonal shifts that means you are never quite sure what is going to come next.

I certainly was unprepared for a play from 1968 to open with a quite gruesome death by way of auto-erotic asphyxiation misadventure. Equally the fact that it suddenly breaks into vaudevillian song and dance routines for no discernible reason is baffling and pleasing in equal measure.

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The making of a king

Richard III – Trafalgar Studios (01 July – 27 September 2014)

Richard III, as proved by his miraculous reappearance in a car park in Leicester, is someone who will not stay dead. In the last three years we had already seen three major productions, including turns from the cream of both stage and screen; Mark Rylance and Kevin Spacey. It is a brave performer who follows in those footsteps and even braver one who takes it despite minimal recent stage experience and a screen persona that has been fine-tuned to be the polar opposite of the larger-than-life, charismatic king.

However Jamie Lloyd has been using the opportunity presented by Trafalgar Transformed to revitalise the space with high octane productions cast with performers that have been carefully chosen to appeal to a younger Martin Freeman as Richard IIIdemographic without destroying the vitality of Shakespeare’s language.

Richard III, and last year’s superb Macbeth with James McAvoy, blurs the lines between cinematic and theatrical expectations. It is reasonable to quibble with the handling of the language but it is wrong to deny they contain a thrilling visceral energy that may counter the preconceived notions of those whose only experience of theatre is via how drama is taught in schools.

There has been criticism in how Martin Freeman approached the text and it is true the verse of the famous opening monologue is all but destroyed through his delivery. However this is less marked in the rest of the play and often the iambic meter is fluid and complete. He may not have the rounded tones of a natural stage actor but this may be a combination of lack of experience and also the directorial decisions underpinning the play.

Richard III JLC PROD-1522The decision to tackle ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’ in that way would not have been taken lightly and, on balance, the production gets away with it because it is being delivered as an address to the nation. If we accept the opening premise that changes it from a traditional monologue to a public speech then it is logically justifiable to deliver it in the clipped rhetorical tones of a politician rather than in the fluid verse of someone expressing their inner-thoughts.

Whilst changing the tone of one of Shakespeare’s greatest speeches is controversial, it does allow a wonderful moment that would not otherwise be delivered. To use the language of cinema there is a brilliant smash-cut at ‘But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks’; Freeman’s Richard switches instantly from the exterior to the interior, from the public to the private. We see clearly the calculating nature of his public persona and the private contempt of others.

For an audience less literate in the convoluted back story of the play it also makes it easier to recognise the inappropriateness of the good humour he shows to Clarence as he is being sent to the tower. We have already been shown the duplicity of Richard and his ability to – use the jargon of modern politics in which it is set – ‘work the room’. Here with Clarence we witness this as a fine art; understanding, consoling and, naturally, mastering the double-speak that contains no lies – ‘well, your imprisonment shall not be long’.

If this Richard has one overriding trait it is that of the small-man syndrome writ on a national scale. This is most clearly witnessed in the wooing of Lady Anne; a scene that demonstrates both the driving force of this Richard, along with a sense of what makes the production ultimately problematic.

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The 2013 Civil Awards – The Winners

The Civil Awards

So the judges have ill-met by moonlight, the runes read, the die cast and the Oracle consulted. Bribes have been counted, tallied and sent to the accountants to be stored in one of Civilian Theatre’s numerous tax havens in the British Virgin Islands. And so, without further ado, here are the winners in the inaugural Civilian Theatre Awards: The Civil Awards

Best Actor – Male

  • James McAvoy – Macbeth (Macbeth)
  • David Tennant – Richard II (Richard II)
  • Serge Maggiani – Berenger (Rhinoceros)
  • Henry Goodman – Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)
  • Rory Kinnear – Iago (Othello)

In the most hotly-contested category of the year we see the usual array of brilliant Shakespeare performances. The difficulty in choosing between them is that they take such different routes into interpreting the Bard for a modern audience. James McAvoy may not be the greatest Shakespearian but he put body as well as soul into a hugely physical performance in the intimate Trafalgar Studios. His was a magnetic Macbeth that may have offended the purists but did make this GSCE-favourite come alive.

There is a notable contrast in David Tennant’s Richard II; Tennant’s quick-silver tongue has made him the most fluid verse speaker of his generation and he reveled in Richard’s fascination with words and language, showing flashes of interpretative genius to draw out the subtleties from the text’s formidable complexity. The final Shakespere on the list was Rory Kinnear’s Iago. Civilian Theatre felt that he edged out Adrian Lester in the Othello double-hander; his Iago was brought into the present as a credible presence in the modern world, immediately recognisable to those watching.

Henry Goodman’s wonderful Arturo Ui was a marvel, blending an ability to move seamlessly between slapstick and seriousness, and proving once again of the fertile life of plays outside London. But the winner comes from even further afield and demonstrating that language is no barrier to great performance. Playing the everyman is often seen as one of the hardest roles to recreate on stage, and Bérenger is presented as the archetypal everyman. Maggiani beautifully captures Bérenger in all his contrarian frailty and gives to the audience a momentary insight into what it is to be truly human on stage. It is a performance that achieves a rare transcendent universalism and makes Maggiani a worthy winner.

And the Winner is… Serge Maggiani as Bérenger in Rhinoceros (Barbican)

Best Actor – Female

  • Phoebe Waller-Bridge – Marion / Fleabag (Mydidae / Fleabag)
  • Harriet Walter – Brutus (Julius Caesar)
  • Hannah Waddingham – Kate (Kiss Me, Kate)
  • Neve McIntosh – Claire (The Events)
  • Ruth Wilson – Monologue (The El Train)

The year started off with fireworks as critics, for no obvious reason, got flustered by the idea of all-female Julius Caesar; however Harriet Walter proved why gender should not be a barrier by giving us an utterly spell-binding Brutus. It showed that given the chance a great actor (male or female) can find a depth and subtlety to Shakespeare’s leading roles, which are full of rich texture and fascinating new interpretations.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge finds herself nominated twice over, with both Mydidae and Fleabag superbly showcasing her skills. Both challenging parts that required both emotionally and physical intimacy, Waller-Bridge proved herself as an actor unafraid of taking risks and a star to watch rise over 2014. It is rare for a musical to generate a nomination but Hannah Waddingham (Kiss Me, Kate) combined a wonderfully vocal performance with solid acting and superb comic timing that lifted the whole production, whilst effortlessly stealing the show from those around her.

Neve McIntosh’s Claire in The Events was the threat that held this powerful work together. It was the sort of performance that was laced with a quiet grief, an understated emotional core that supported rather than threatening to overwhelm the whole. It was the kind of performances that are rarely noticed because by playing small you allow the play itself to take centre stage, and that is a rare enough skill in an actor.

Ruth Wilson’s performances in The El Train came just in time for nomination and proved once again that few British actors do American better. She has developed the rare skill of stillness that cannot help but draw the audience to her. Wilson’s performance in The El Train was an acting masterclass in the art of the monologue and in building a full realised character out of the smallest of scraps.

And the Winner is… Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar (Donmar Warehouse)

Best Supporting Actor

  • Kyle Soller – Gaveston (Edward II)
  • Vanessa Kirby – Isabella (Edward II)
  • Jonathan Slinger – Parolles (All’s Well That Ends Well)
  • Ben Whishaw – Baby (Mojo)
  • William Gaunt – Dogsborough (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)

After the tremendous disappointment of Peter and Alice it was a relief to see, in Mojo, what an electrifying actor Ben Whishaw can be. His presence onstage ramped up the wattage by some degrees and he once again undercut his somewhat fey persona with a dangerous malevolence. Jonathan Slinger’s Parolles in the RSC’s All’s Well That Ends Well continues his fine run of form for the Company. Growing in presence and with a Hamlet under his belt, Slinger is continuing his rapid rise through ranks.

Two supporting nominations for the uneven but often entertaining Edward II at the National; Kyle Soller is a clear rising star and has become a go-to for beefing up a supporting presence over the last couple of years but it was Vanessa Kirby’s Isabella who takes even more praise. Gaveston is a clear supporting role but Kirby carved out a weighty role for a part that could have sat far more in the background. Her role as one of Lear’s daughter in the upcoming Sam Mendes’ production should be one to watch.

However the award must go to the old guard and William Gaunt’s fabulous Dogsborough in Arturo Ui. It’s not easy play Brecht – Gaunt must represent the entire failure of the German establishment seen through Hindenburg as refracted the role of a southern gentleman. Gaunt gives the role a tragic grandeur – of a man who betrays his principles and realises far too late how far he has been outflanked.

And the Winner is… William Gaunt as Dogsborough in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Duchess Theatre)

Best Director

  • Susan Stroman – The Scottsboro Boys
  • Katie Mitchell – Fraulein Julie
  • Jamie Lloyd – Macbeth
  • Declan Donnellan – Ubu Roi
  • Gregory Doran – Richard II

All the directors on the list deserve acclaim for rich and involving productions. It is no surprise that only one failed to make it to Civilian Theatre’s Top 10 shows of 2013 (and even then Doran’s Richard II only missed out by the most slender of margins).

Each brings something different to the table but in the end the prize must go to the formal inventiveness of Katie Mitchell’s Fraulein Julie. There are many British companies pushing boundaries but Mitchell does more than this. She seems less concerned with the question of what theatre is and instead is wholly focused on how to deliver greatest truth to the audience. Her blurring of traditional mediums reached its greatest coherence to date in Fraulein Julie; a grueling but stunning reinvention of the Strindberg classic.

And the Winner is… Katie Mitchell for Fraulein Julie (Barbican Theatre)

Theatre / Theatre Company of the Year

  • Young Vic
  • Barbican Centre
  • Trafalgar Transformed
  • Harold Pinter Theatre

The Harold Pinter Theatre is a surprise entrant on the list but it has shown impressive diversity for a West End theatre; Old Times, Mojo and Merrily We Roll Along all proving to be canny acquisitions and audience hits. The Barbican and the Young Vic continued their traditionally strong programming with a mixture of plays to suit every taste at prices that remain, just about, on the affordable end of the spectrum. However the prize goes to the Trafalgar Studios for their audacious Trafalgar Transformed season and for giving Jamie Lloyd free-run of their main space. It was a move that could have potentially backfired spectacularly but The Hothouse, Macbeth and The Pride proved that there is life for serious drama in a more commercial setting.

And the Winner is… Trafalgar Transformed

Surprise of the Year

  • The Scottsboro Boys
  • The Events
  • Hamlet de los Andes

Three very different plays united in their complete unexpectedness. Between them they made three of the top four places in Civilian Theatre’s Top 10. It proved once again that you just need to scratch the surface to find innovative, powerful and challenging theatre. In the end Hamlet de los Andes edges it purely because nothing about it seemed promising. The Events had the weight of David Greig and The Scottsboro Boys had Kander & Ebb; Hamlet de los Andes was an unknown– in the UK – Bolivian company that had the audacity to rip apart Hamlet for their own ends. The result was brilliant.

And the Winner is… Hamlet de los Andes

Best thing to happen in theatre in 2013

  • The amount of £10 seats for the Michael Grandage season
  • Rupert Goold appointed as the next artistic director of the Almeida
  • The opening of The Shed

Even despite the disappointing season that was offered, Michael Grandage must be applauded for the amount of affordable tickets – and not all in rubbish seats – that were on sale for his plays. If the Stalls seats are going to be extravagantly priced then at least it was used to subsidise others. The Shed looks exciting but the prize goes to Rupert Goold taking the reins at the Almeida. Our most innovative director in charge of his own theatre, and one that blends public and commercial sensibilities at that; it should be an interesting few years and this move positions Goold perfectly for something even high-profile the next time the roundabout turns.

And the Winner is… Rupert Goold at the Almeida

Biggest disappointment of the year

  • Not going to see Chimerica
  • The general flat direction and conservative productions in the Michael Grandage season
  • The fact that The Book of Mormon won Tony awards and The Scottsboro Boys didn’t

Well on a personal level it was being too lazy to see Chimerica. Clearly one of the plays of the year and it was through indolence alone that it was missed by Civilian Theatre. However the out and out winner is the Michael Grandage season. Having bought into the hype, and into the tickets, it produced disappointment after disappointment. Peter and Alice was dross on every level, The Cripple of Inishmaan did scrape over average and then an immediate downturn into a boring baby boomer A Midsummer Night’s Drum before a dull as ditchwater Henry V rounded things off.

Worse thing to happen in theatre in 2013

  • The growing trend to not allow people to book seats so that there is only one left on its own
  • The continuing upward creep of top-end theatre ticket prices
  • The cull of theatre critics across the mainstream press

Any of the three above are more than worthy of winning the prize. However a late entrant steals the show for being both terrible, and for being so unexpectedly terrible. Mark Rylance. James Earl Jones. Vanessa Redgrave. Shakespeare. The Old Vic. Nothing in those words suggests anything other than a production of the highest calibre and undoubted interest from audience and critics alike. However the unmitigated disaster that was Much Ado About Nothing led all that saw it to attempt to blank the experience from their mind. It was a catastrophe of the like that is rarely seen on the London stage and although it gives no pleasure to do so, it must be awarded the prize of: worse thing to happen in theatre in 2013.

McAvoy shines through a dank and dirty Macbeth

Macbeth – Trafalgar Studios, until 27 April 2013

Macbeth, by virtue of its perennial presence on the national curriculum and its pulpy plot that might just possibly hold the attention of recalcitrant teenagers who would rather be playing Call of Duty than sitting in a darkened theatre listening to verse-speaking for over two hours, is a Shakespeare play that never seems far from reach. It also has the added advantage of lead role that can be tailored to actors as apart in their careers as Kenneth Branagh and James McAvoy.

This sense of over-familiarity has harmed the play’s standing in the canon of Shakespearian tragedy, where it is rarely considered to be on the same level as Hamlet and King Lear. This distinction is hard to deny if the sole value for the tragedies is driven by the psychological complexity of its lead characters. However in Macbeth, which post-dates both plays, Shakespeare seem less interested in this then it exploring man as a primal force of nature. Where Hamlet ruminates on the moral legitMACBETH by Shakespeare,   Credit: Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.com /imacy of his actions and the imperatives that drive him, Macbeth is driven by the emotion that eventually subsumes him – the tragedy lies precisely in this lack of reflection.

One of the joys of Macbeth for a director is that it provides an appealingly blank canvas; the landscape is sketched out as roughly as the country it is set in, and the setting is not tied to any significant fixed points in history. The result allows freedom for the director to overlay an idea onto the play without destroying the sheer enjoyment of Macbeth’s whirlwind central performance.

Jamie Lloyd’s production embraces the wild and primitive nature of the text – it is a Macbeth that lives and breathes the visceral and savage world in which it is set. There is no re-imagining Macbeth as a modern-day dictator or gangland crime boss; this is a Macbeth of history but a history that is rarely seen – when kings were a long way from assuming a divine right and living in a world of pomp and pageantry. In this Macbeth, you are king in so far as you assert a brutal right to supremacy. You are king of what you can hold and no further.

At its heart is Hobbes’ maxim that life without a settled community is a life of ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.The set could be described as post-apocalyptic, post-climate change, post-fall of civilisation but it could easily reflect the nature of Britain prior to the establishment of a settled state. It is dank, dirty and decaying, and suits the purposes of those rule it. From the outset it is clear that these hard men living in hard times; when Duncan exclaims ‘what bloody man is that?’ [I.ii] it is not out of concern for his condition but out of wariness over his allegiance. Until Malcolm confirms that he is the Sargent he is welcomed only by the barrel of a rifle.

Similarly when Duncan reaches Glamis it seems more in keeping with a temporary base of a raging civil war; people sit on fold-up chairs and the ‘throne’, in a playful twist, is a toilet. The castle stands as a base of operations and nothing further. These men embody thec tribes forced north of the wall centuries earlier by the Romans than the contrasting civilisation of southern England. A point made by Lloyd as he bathes the set in an almost spiritual light during the play’s foray south of the border to hear Macduff and Malcolm debate the values of kingship.

This imagined world revolves around Spinoza’s belief that ‘peace is not the absence of war, but a virtue based on strength of character’. The play begins as war is concluded and the opportunity for peace to descend, yet it appears inevitable that it will only act as a temporary cessation of hostilities. It is so embedded that Macduff, who represents the forces of moral legitimacy, ultimately fails to demonstrate the virtues that can allow peace to flourish. The stark imagery of Macduff lifting Macbeth’s severed head above his own, face slowly covered by the blood of the defeated King, resembles the savagery of all that was fought against than the kingly virtues that Malcolm extols.

It is essential to understand that McAvoy’s Macbeth exists against this backdrop, as it is an explanation to the question of why Macbeth cannot turn away once he has achieved everything that was promised to him. Even before the Witches’ promise him the title of King it seems apparent that this Macbeth would not have been satisfied with his lot. Like those around him, he is a man of war and his achievements breed an emptiness rather than satisfaction.

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