We came hoping for a new arcadia and instead ended up with Welwyn Garden City.

The Hard Problem – Dorfman Space @ National Theatre, until 27 May 2015 (Tickets)

This production will be broadcast to cinemas on 16 Aprilthe_hard_problem398.jpg

The ‘hard problem’of the title refers to ‘consciousness’; a concept under assault from a battalion of neuroscientists laying claim to greater and greater certainty in their understanding of brain functionality as something that can be deconstructed to the micro-level of synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters. As neuroscience is in the ascendancy we are left with awkward questions over whether humans are left increasingly shackled by the tyranny of genetic determinism? Where does our freedom of thought – our freedom to act in ways contrary to the principles of evolutionary science – fit into the equation? In essence does the philosophical ‘mind’, as opposed to the functional ‘brain’, exist?

These are fascinating questions and truly weighty topics. It is the sort of subject we have come to expect from Tom Stoppard, who has demonstrated his formidable intelligence on countless occasions over the last forty years and in so doing has contributed some of Britain’s finest plays of the post-war era. This includes two genuine classics in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Arcadia and many others that found audacious approaches to create unabashedly literate drama enthused with a wit that refused to bow to the lowest common denominator.

Stoppard is 77 years old and it is his first new play for nine years. So perhaps the hard problem for the audience is reconciling itself to the idea that the play – quite possibly his last – is a bit of a dud. Critical reactions have been mixed and supported by an undercurrent of good will but, on reflection, can anyone seriously challenge the view that this is but a pale imitation of what has come before?

The play suffers primarily from a lack of drama. Things happen, time passes, the plot resorts to rather clichéd contrivances and one comes away finding it very difficult to care about any of it.

<<Continue to full review>>

Rufus Norris: New Artistic Director of the National Theatre

Congratulations to Rufus Norris on the news that he has been appointment to follow in the footsteps of NicholasRufus-Norris Hytner to become the next artistic director of the National Theatre. Generally seen as just about favourite for the role, he has clearly exuded a behind-the-scenes confidence that has outshone his relative lack of experience.

I have read more about his work than seen it – but what I have seen has been absolutely first rate, and whilst the National has looked to broaden its horizons in recent years it has always felt that it was just dipping its toe in the waters. With Norris in post it is perhaps time that the National will truly dive headlong in what it is to produce theatre in, and for, modern Britain.

Hytner has left some big shoes to fill – and clearly they decided not to fill them with more of the same, the National have also sidestepped the opportunity for a ‘big name’. However in all reality what chance did Daldry, Mendes and Branagh really have if they were not willing to forego their cinematic commitments? Watch the bun fight when Kevin Spacey steps down at the Old Vic; a theatre that has more than understood how a ‘celebrity’ name can be a huge draw, vastly outweighing any accompanying problems.

In leaving Norris the Shed space, Hytner’s has bequeathed an excellent legacy that will pay dividends. It gives him room, in those important early years, to work in a smaller, less pressurised space to develop innovative work that may be initially hard to put though the Olivier. It gives Norris breathing space whilst he sets about changing any internal negative attitudes to his direction, and to clear house where houses need clearing.

A couple of years down the line, we may be looking at a National that really does reflect Britain today, and whilst the lack of Shakespeare is a concern (or at least it is for the purists) but perhaps fresh eyes on the playwright is really what is needed.

Norris is an excellent choice and I can’t wait to see how he leaves his mark.

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