Kramer vs Kramer for the ancient Greek generation

Medea – Almeida Theatre, until 14 November 2015 (tickets)

Under Rupert Goold’s unusually restrained direction, the Almeida Greeks season closes with Rachel Cusk’s brutally open updating of perhaps the most intriguingly ambiguous of ancient tragedies, Medea. It is a production teetering on the edge of brilliance and one that leaves no doubt that there are few stage actors who can match Kate Fleetwood’s ability to humanise the most complex of characters.

Watching Medea, and reflecting on Oresteia and Bakkhai, the carefully chosen nature of the three plays becomes apparent. In the ancient world, the personal, political and religious were fundamentally intertwined but the strength of Goold’s season has been to disentangle these threads so as to give them a clearer contemporary relevance. The season opened with a stunning reinvention of Oresteia – a political tragedy in so much as it was a tragedy of events, where a forced decision leads to an endless echo chamber of destruction. This was followed by Bakkhai, where tragedy is orchestrated by a capricious and vengeful god.

Medea is a problematic play because for all its greatness, it has an almost unresolvable contradiction at its core – as much as we can see Medea as a wronged figure, the act of filicide can never be seen as justifiable to a modern audience. This was precisely where last year’s version with Helen McCrory at the National, based on a Ben Power translation, became unstuck as it updated the setting without finding a way to modernise the plot.

0332798d-e0e7-41b1-af41-9414fbd8949b-680x365_cTo get around this problem Cusk has substantially reworked the play to the extent that a person could watch this production and not realise that it is taken from an ancient Greek play. Purists may decry the lack of poetry and question whether this is can truly be called Euripides’ play given the narrative reworking that takes place. This should be countered by the fact that it arrives with the note that it is a new version by Rachel Cusk, and that the myths have always been adapted to meet the needs of the time.

Where Goold and Cusk succeed is to entirely reimagine the play. It is not a tragedy brought about by the divine, or by individuals caught up in grand events. It is a tragedy found in the domesticity of everyday life. Cusk’s interpretation thrusts the play into the modern world. The time of gods has passed and instead we live in a world of men (and the use of the word ‘men’ is entirely intentional).

Medea has become a domestic tragedy about family breakdown. It is a snarling, vituperative text that sets Jason against Medea, with the children a battleground and reputations as weapons. Anger courses through the play, and confrontations between the two are ferocious all-out assaults that have a dangerous, spiteful venom rarely captured on the stage.

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Snobbish champagne socialites at the Old Vic

High Society – Old Vic Theatre, until 22 August 2015 (Tickets)wpid-wp-1434876973039.jpg

After a decade at the helm, High Society marks Kevin Spacey’s last show in charge of the Old Vic. If Clarence Darrow was a – not unwarranted – gift from Spacey to himself, a much deserved lap of honour that indulged his love of great character parts and allowed the audience to wallow in the sheer magnetism of the man, then High Society is a chance to give the crowds a little sparkle and razzmatazz as he heads out the door.

In a fortuitous piece of scheduling, I headed to the Old Vic just days after seeing a Berlin & Hart musical (Face the Music) staged splendidly in a tiny theatre pub in east London. To watch both in such close proximity only reinforced the gigantic financial disparities in the theatre world. It is clearly evident on the stage, where Maria Friedman (Merrily We Roll Along) deploys pretty much every available bell and whistle to make the musical in-the-round, and also in the murky world of ticket prices – £10 for High Society, £18 for Face The Music – where corporate sponsorship enables incredible cheap tickets in the face of a steep production budget.

As you are sitting in the baking hot auditorium waiting for the second half to start, it is likely you will be thinking that even £10 seemed a little steep. The first half of High Society is a real mish-mash. It suffers from problems everywhere you look; the story takes time to get going as it labours under a endless series of characters being introduced only to be whisked off in search of a plot device. There is a real absence of decent songs and routines before the interval, whilst some of the vocal talent on display is rather uneven. The only exception is Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, a lovely little number that sees Porter’s lyrical wit matched with fun choreography and energetic performances from Jamie Parker and Katherine Pearson.

Then the lights go down, the double bass begins to play and 12 minutes later Nathan M Wright’s superbly choreographed Let’s Misbehave has transformed the evening. It is a fantastic set-piece and one of those glorious numbers that seems as if it will go on and on for the rest of the night. Just as it hits a peak, it will relax before coming back even more impressively with a new routine. This is one of few numbers where the choreography is truly at a West End standard. It even had someone tap-dancing on the top of a piano.

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And so goodbye to summer…

For regular theatre goers there can be few markers that you have passed the last dregs of summer than no longer suffering a twinge of jealousy as you walk past all the tourists drinking merrily on the South Bank as you take your seat in the hot, sweaty and dark auditorium.

Not that, as we were constantly reminded, this was a summer like any other. In effect normality went into a two month hiatus as London, and in time the rest of the country, came to a complete standstill as we eventually recognised that we are not nearly as useless as we enjoy telling each other we are. The trains arrived, the people were friendly, we avoided being blown up by terrorists or trigger-happy missile silos, the army ran the logistics and G4S ran nothing and the Mo-Bot became a meme. In short the Olympics and the Paralympics happened and everyone forgot about the rain.

In between all of this excitement the London theatre scene quietly ticked over in the background. Unsurprisingly Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s predictions of audience carnage proved entirely wrong as the West End’s goal of relieving punters of ever increasing amounts of money from their cash-strapped wallets in exchange for third-rate musicals culled from second-rate films continued remorselessly onwards. Luckily for the rest of us the National Theatre proved that affordable theatre can have depth, resonance and even the odd sprinkling of star power.

The revival of London Road – transplanted to the Olivier – was an example of how to draw on a weighty subject with a lightness of touch that is rare among those more used to the deadening hand of television. Having somehow contrived to miss the first run, despite being aware of the sacksful of critical praise that it gathered meant that this was a must see. The fact that the engrossing Katherine Fleetwood reprised her role only added as an extra incentive – an actor indelibly marked in my brain following her unforgettable turn as the strongest Lady Macbeth I have had the fortune to see, and surely a match for Judy Dench’s classic portrayal, in Rupert Goold’s memorable production.

How unfortunate to have been released in the same year as the equally critically-acclaimed and certainly rather more family-friendly Matilda, London Road never received the awards it richly deserved but the fact it could sell out the Olivier for a musical based on interviews with people who lived on the same road as Richard Wright, the Ipswich serial killer, tells its own story about the power of the production.

A truly haunting piece, skilfully manipulated and never less than engaging, it raises many interesting questions about the stories that aren’t told; the impact on the community, the everyday people, of a media circus and a major police operation. Whilst there are legitimate questions over how composite characters reflect the truth and whether they bring forward narrative interest over narrative truth, there is enough in the words and the playful skill with which they are turned into song that sets this apart as a musical of rare power and intelligence.

Alongside this, the Olivier season included Simon Russell Beale giving us Timon of Athens. Without fail described as a difficult play, Timon of Athens has so many contemporary resonances that it should mean more to us. The parallels of the first half to the modern day are so clear, so apparent, that one almost hopes that the play doesn’t resume after the interval. This production, like so many before it, faced and failed the classic problem of trying to unpick and restitch Shakespeare to craft a specific relevance to modern times.

Watching the rise and inevitable fall of Timon, one is both appalled by the actions of Athenians but also frustrated by Timon’s obvious naiveté. It is hard to truly accept that Timon could have fared so well in society based on the actions we see in the play. The fault here is part Shakespeare and part Simon Russell Beale – who was a strangely passive and reedy presence in a play that really demands a lot of heft. His slightly cherubic public school persona – so perfect as Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time – feels out of place in his hermit hovel on the outskirts of the city.

The most interesting aspect of the play is to follow the generally accepted fact that the play was written by two different playwrights. Shakespeare, it is assumed, is responsible for the grandstanding and most of the second half, and Middleton, who is believed to behind the city-based Athenians. It is clear that when one thinks of the play in these terms, it is Shakespeare who comes off worst. Middleton’s play fizzes with a comic satire and adds to his reputation as one of the great comic playwrights of the Elizabethan era. His background characters hit the stage fully formed and when interacting with one another there is a robust and fascinating take on the avarice of Athenian society but the play too often grinds to a deathly halt once the moralising fury of Timon takes centre stage.

It was a disappointing production underpinning a disappointing play. There are many who call Simon Russell Beale one of our finest character actors, yet the case is still to be made of his credentials as a great Shakespearian actor following his rather undercooked Falstaff with this forgettable Timon.