Simon Stephens’ takes axe to Chekov’s orchard

The Cherry Orchard – Young Vic Theatre, Until 29 November (Tickets)

Every regular theatre goer has their blind spots, the playwrights that don’t just pass them by but they go out of their way to avoid. Civilian Theatre will happily spend an evening debating the merits of the musical or delivering a polemic against those who worship at the pedestal of Sarah Kane. However in the dark, locked away from public view, is a secret shame; a failure to comprehend, or even by interested in, the merits of turn of Kate Duchêne (Lyubov Ranevskaya) and Paul Hilton (Peter Trofimov) in The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic Photo by Stephen Cummiskeythe century Russian naturalism.

Being aware that Chekov is, arguably, thought of as second-only to Shakespeare as a playwright and that the finest writers, dramatists and critics hold the likes of Tolstoy, Gorky and Dostoevsky in the highest regard only increases the sense of a personal failure. Add a disinterest in Dickens and Ibsen and the feeling there is a black hole in my cultural awareness grows.

This is not to deny the obvious talent on display; it is impossible, even if you don’t like them, not to respect Dickens’ sentences or Chekov’s details but appreciating the building blocks is a very different thing to admiring the final structure – take the ArelorMitttal Tower, it is certainly impressively constructed but that doesn’t stop it being a hideous eyesore that is nothing more than a well-captured Freudian representation of Boris Johnson’s ego.

YOUNG VIC THEATRE: THE CHERRY ORCHARD, 2014Sticking with Freud, I suspect the problems spring from childhood – an A-Level interrogation of A Doll’s House through the lens of Stanislavski is enough to break the spirit of anyone. Task, Objective, Super Objective; it may be true, it may be necessary, it certainly sucks the spirit of the unknown out of theatre. It went in hand-in-hand with experiencing a lifeless, long and boring production of Gorky’s Summerfolk at the National (although seeing the cast included Roger Allam, Patricia Hodge and Simon Russell-Beale, I am willing to concede the problem may have been with this particular reviewer).

Whether the production was good or not, it came at one of those moments you only later realise was ‘formative’. In the same year I saw Complicite’s Mnemonic and  a revival of Steven Berkoff’s East – how could a staid, hundred year old drama possibly compete with the vitality of Berkoff or a company showing an impressionable young mind all that theatre could be.

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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.

And so we reach the final five…

Over the last few days Civilian Theatre has been counting down their Top 10 plays of 2013. The decision making process to find a top 10 was difficult enough to begin with, and there were at least five or six plays that were edged out in the end. It was a surprise to discover that Coriolanus – thoroughly enjoyable – did not get close and even David Tennant in Richard II was edged out; a particularly hard call given it sees one of my favourite verse-speakers meet one of my favourite plays by Shakespeare. A mention should also go to Harriet Walter – superb in a brave all-female production of Julius Caesar and the best Brutus that I have seen on stage, but with enough overall flaws to edge it out of contention.

But a reminder of what we have seen already

10) The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – Chichester Festival and Duchess Theatre

09) Ubu Roi – Cheek By Jowl at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre

08) Macbeth – Trafalgar Transformed at the Trafalgar Studios

07) Mydidae – Trafalgar Studios

06) Othello – Olivier Stage at the National Theatre

And so at Number 05….Fraulein Julie

And the link to the original review

No 05 Fraulein Julie

The Civil Shortlist

The Contenders

Well the plays have been revisited, the little grey cells put back into action and the oracle consulted. In short and without further ado, Civilian Theatre is proud to present the runners and riders in the inaugural shortlist for The Civil Awards. [Cue much fanfare, fireworks and underhand, dirty trick campaigns].

Bribes, whilst having little effect on the outcome, will still be gratefully received. Your comments and opinions are also welcomed.

Winners will revealed next week following a countdown of the Top 10 plays of 2013.

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)

Best Actor – Female

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)

Best Director

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

Theatre / Theatre Company of the Year

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

Surprise of the Year

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

Biggest disappointment of the year

  • Not going to see Chimerica
  • The general flat direction and conservative productions in the Michael Grandage season
  • Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench in Peter and Alice 

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

Radical naturalism in haunting reinvention of a classic

Fraulein Julie – Barbican, until 04 May

Strindberg’s Miss Julie never seems to quite fall out of fashion but even by its standards, London has been awash with the play. This is the third major version in less than a year, and it has been only six months since audiences at the Barbican were left underwhelmed by the high-profile casting of art-house favourite Juliette Binoche in the title role, whilst those who saw Mies Julie were rather more  thrilled by the South African reinvention and the Young Vic took it upon themselves to revive Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie.

For all the different qualities these productions brought to Strindberg’s original they must be regarded to be drifting in the wake of Katie Mitchell’s exceptional production, which contains a lacerating truthfulness that Fraulein Julie in Katie Mitchell's radical reinventionmakes it almost unbearable to watch. The most remarkable element of the exposure of the truth in this most naturalistic of plays is that Mitchell’s deliberately subverts audience expectations of naturalism by introducing many layers of artifice in order to produce a dislocating, alienating experience.

Fraulein Julie contains all of the directorial tics of a Katie Mitchell production; television cameras are used almost continuously alongside the action, a set creates physical barriers between audience and actors, sound booths overlay conversation and Foley artists provide live sounds effects. The audience are left in the position of watching both the back of a TV studio at the same time as watching a radical reinvention of the Strindberg play – and yet despite all this feel no dissonance as the events unfold.

These traits in Mitchell seem appropriate – in so far as there are auteurs in theatre, it is hard to imagine many British directors fitting the bill better. Her natural reference points seem to be from Russian cinema – with the slightly woozy quality of Sokurov’s The Sun and its obsessive focus on Hirohito being particularly reminiscent in the utter focuus on one character even as events of more dramatic significance happen external to the action. .

It is not that Mitchell has a filmic quality to her work but that she has the auteur’s passion for pursing a singular vision with seemingly little regard for the enjoyment of the audience. It expresses a confidence in her own belief, and that if the belief is proved correct then the audience will be taken with her. Fraulein Julie is an experience and rarely a particularly pleasant one; it is draining, august and defiant in its lack of concession to those watching. It seems a rare person who can increase the level of austerity attached to Strindberg but this is what Mitchell has achieved.

A day after performance it is still impossible to attach a sense of how ‘good’ it was – even in tragedy there is usually a way to qualify enjoyment, be it through plot, character or performance. Here the plot is stripped away to focus entirely on one character, but the character is provided with very little interior life and the performances themselves are muted through their heightened naturalism.

However there is something about the whole affair that is undoubtedly brilliant and possibly makes it the most genuinely ground-breaking production of the year. In Mitchell’s previous work there has been an attempt to force her ideas onto plays that are not best suited to the technique. With Fraulein Julie, Mitchell has found the content to harmonise with form.

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