Cillian Murphy mixes characters in stodgy Irish stew

Misterman – National Theatre, Selected dates until May 28 2012

Watching Cillian Murphy’s Thomas Magil, Inishfree’s one-man self-appointed morality committee, in Enda Walsh’s Misterman, I found myself transported back to two days previously to the Barbican where Cate Blanchett was the actor and Boho Strauss the playwright.  The parallels, as both plays hit London in the run-up to the Cultural Olympiad, perhaps reveal more about the process of staging a difficult play in the current climate than they reveal about the plays themselves.

The heavily-advertised cherry on top of each production is a bona fide Hollywood actor but not in the classic star mould that so often has the critics sharpening their knives. Both began their career in another country and grew up with one foot in the theatre rather than the Hollywood Hills. Neither has fully embraced the movie system despite Blanchett winning an Oscar for her role as Katharine Hepburn in Scorsese’s The Aviator; as close to embodying Hollywood royalty as it gets. Murphy has never embraced his potential leading man status whilst building a body of work that includes the huge Christopher Nolan blockbusters of the Dark Knight and Inception.

It is intriguing that in their return to stage both have chosen roles that focus almost exclusively on the isolation of the leading characters. Blanchett’s Lotte is a woman cast adrift from society following the break-up of her marriage; she is unable to effectively anchor herself and drifts along engaging in surreal encounters with friends and families that only heighten her growing isolation.

On the surface Murphy’s Thomas is suffering from an imposed isolation. He is literally rather than metaphorically alone; forced into making conversation with tape-recorded voices. However even in these interactions it is clear that Thomas was always out of kilter with those around him. It is a fantastical set-up but there is realism within the structure of the conversations that sets it apart from Big and Small.

It is difficult not to speculate what led the actors to these roles. They are not well-known plays and it seems unlikely that either would enjoy the same positioning and budget without their leads. The roles allow a freedom to an actor that is rarely granted, even in the theatre, but under the surface they are also strangely inflexible and a little one-note. As neither play really sketches out anything more than a caricature of secondary characters, the actors have no-one to play off and at times it can feel like an intense therapy session.

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A thoroughly modern monarchy

Hamlet – National Theatre, 23 April 2011

Approaching a play with as much weight and complexity as Hamlet there are numerous decisions that have to be made. It is too big, too vast in subject matter and character to tackle every angle in one production. Recent productions of Hamlet in London, as good as they were, have been driven in part by the celebrity of the actors and as a result we have had productions that are unashamedly an “actor’s” Hamlet. We have had David Tennant; quick-witted and verbally nimble, playfully engaging with the comedic nature of Hamlet’s flurries of stage-managed madness (pushed on by an excellent rapport with Oliver Ford Davies’ masterful Polonius). Hot on his heels was Jude Law; here Hamlet is emotionally angry, powerful yet filled with an engaging vulnerability. There is clearly nothing wrong with productions where Hamlet is front and centre but watching Patrick Stewart as Claudius in the RSC version, it felt a little unfortunate that such a versatile actor was left playing such a complex and interesting part in the shadows of Tennant’s performance. It seemed as if an instruction had been given to rein in the performance to allow Tennant the room to perform.

From the off Nicholas Hytner’s Hamlet steps back and places the play in context. As the house lights fade to black, the audience are met with the sound of an aeroplane cutting through the stillness as it flies by overhead. The soldiers actually look like they are patrolling and the entrance of the ghost is met with an alertness that suggests infiltrators and enemies hovering in the shadows. The spectre of Fortinbras and war loom larger over this version of Hamlet than any other I have seen. As a result this is a play about paranoia, fear and surveillance. We are reminded continually that, whether or not something is rotten in the state of Denmark, this is a Claudius unwilling to anything to chance. Outside every door are ear-piece wearing security guards, however as the play continues it becomes increasingly evident that their presence is less to protect and more to provide Claudius with additional eyes and ears. Hamlet, Ophelia and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are monitored throughout and each entrance and exit is swiftly followed by their ‘security’. This gives Hamlet’s ‘Now I am alone’ (ii.ii) a sense of real power as the audience realises that, for the first time in the play, Hamlet can talk freely, and in doing so can give full attention to his plan to use the play to trap Claudius…Continue Reading Here