Where are your god’s now?

Medea – Olivier @ National Theatre, until 04 September (Tickets)

One of the most shocking things about this production of Euripides’ Medea is the discovery that it’s the first time that the National Theatre has staged it in its 50 year history; a startling omission, and all the more appalling MEDEA_2982115bwhen you consider the legion of fine female actors that have graced the stage in that time.

When you consider the paucity of roles for women in pre-20th century playwriting then to ignore one of the great tragedies is astonishing. Medea, more than many of the surviving plays of ancient Greece, has retained its relevance to the modern era as it can rely as much on an understanding of human psychology as it does on the intervention of the Gods.

That it was never picked by the National to ‘inspire debate’, if for no other reason, during the height of the fight for gender equality; it seems an obvious candidate, although a firm hand is needed to steer Medea away from a conspicuously Congreve-inspired ‘…hell a fury like a woman scorned’ and closer to Shakespeare Lear who saw himself as ‘...More sinn’d against than sinning’.

It is a crucial distinction; it is difficult to separate Medea’s anger at Jason’s actions from her anger at her own impotence, but it is essential to make this seperation if Medea is going to be humanised as a tragic figure in her own right. It is like Lear in the storm; we may not fully believe in his argument or in his call for the gods to execute justice on his behalf but we have to believe that his raging is at least partially justified.

Carrie Cracknell clearly believes it would have relevance in the past having seemingly set the play in the 1970s; the period was a boom-time for psychoanalysis and self-discovery, and Helen McCrory’s Medea approach and understanding to her problems is often as someone who has spent time assessing themselves on the couch. The era is reinforced by Tom Scutt’s beautiful design and immediately recognisable period furniture. The plate glass window and minimal lines could come as easily from a Mediterranean villa as they could from a southern Californian hillside.

Dominic Rowan as AegusOver 2014 Cracknell has directed three plays and, along with the A Doll’s House at the Young Vic in 2012, there are clearly thematic links between them. She seems fascinated in the fragility of the individual and particularly those who deliberately set themselves against the grain. A Doll’s House, Birdland and Medea all contain protagonists who must bear the weight of societal pressure to conform; these people are not, in themselves, naturally heroic but find that they cannot bring themselves to act in any other way.

The third play – her collaborative effort with Nick Payne – was Blurred Lines highlighted another theme central to her work; an interest in women and the position they are held in by wider society. Blurred Lines was a painfully powerful expression of real lives, a melange of stories, thoughts and opinions that traversed the spectrum from bleak and melancholy to humorous and life-affirming. A Doll’s House is an established genre-defining work and Medea, well for Medea to work it needs to show the internal complexity that can push a woman to commit what continues to be one of society’s most horrifying taboos.

Helen McCrory is an actress more than capable of producing the subtleties necessary for the role. At 5’4 and with a face that has a pixyish quality McCroy is perhaps not the Medea of the imagination – all strident, astringent anger and physically domineering as the fury whips up around her – and against Danny Sapani’s burly Jason it is apparent that she is never going to go toe-to-toe with him.

<<Continue to full review>>

 

Watch the trailer

 

Advertisements

Small family business yields little profit

A Small Family Business – Olivier @ National Theatre, until 27 August 2014

The National Theatre website currently advertises its revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business as running until the 27 August 2014; given middling reviews and, more damagingly, the desolate swath empty seats all around, this now seems a trifle optimistic. One wonders if Ayckbourn has lost touch with his heartland and whether that distant sound is of Geoffrey Howe readying his poison pen.

If the above analogy seems tortured and meaningless in 2014 then try sitting through two and half hours of Thatcher-era satirical farce played, almost without exception, as if actors were being paid by the minute.A_Small_Family_Bus_2875957b

Astute readers may have gathered that A Small Family Business is not considered a success. There are many problems with the production but at its heart is the play. Ayckbourn is a fine dramatist – one whose reputation has grown as the subtle radicalism of his writing and staging has become ever more appreciated – but his work has always run the risk of being too identified with the period that he critiques.

Whereas writers like Pinter and Beckett examine the universal, Ayckbourn’s skill has always been the microscopic. He is one of the great observers; capable of skewering the social charade and unveiling the fissure lines that runs through society, the unspoken conventions of the British that permeates life and ensures everyone conforms to their class.

Family businessThe conclusion that can be drawn from A Small Family Business is that we have entered a period where his targets are no longer recognisable. It may be quarter of a century old but the world that Ayckbourn has pictured seems embarrassingly quaint; quintessentially English, it is not comforting in the same way that we relax into a Miss Marple and it is not a period piece in the way we might enjoy something by Noel Coward.

With the benefit of hindsight it does not seem like biting satire but instead offers a naïve view of the world. Living in an era where companies like Amazon pay £4.2 million in UK tax on generated sales of over £4 billion, it is hard not to recognise the scale of the ethical corruption of big business. In this work the idea that a small family concern needs to pay off a private detective to the tune of £50,000 does not really hit the mark. It is all a little reminiscent of Austin Power’s Dr Evil:

 

Indeed one of the more charmingly amusing ideas in the play is the idea that Britain has any small family-run businesses at all, let alone ones that aren’t riddled by corruption.

<<Continue to full review>>

King-Lear---National-Theatre_191213202638122

What makes these hard hearts? Finding warmth in King Lear

King Lear – Olivier @ National Theatre, until 28 May 2014

King Lear, in its monumental scale and overwhelming desolation, is a play that can defeat its audience. It continues to stand alone as the greatest of tragedies due to Shakespeare’s seamless transition from initial personal tragedy to something that contemplates human suffering at a universal level. It may be commonplace to reference the existential nature of the latter stages of King Lear but it is only within the last hundred years that the world has caught up with what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote of Gloucester and Tom atop the cliff that never was or gave voice to the depths of Lear’s madness.

That Shakespeare was writing a play set in the years before England had become England, taking his sources from the Middle Ages and developing interior thoughts that would only be given a name four hundred years later gives an idea of Simon Russell Beale as King Learthe totality of the play and its all-encompassing nature. Indeed our understanding of the importance of the play appears to be only increasing over time; as Jonathan Bate notes, King Lear it has been performed more times in the previous fifty years than in the preceding three hundred and fifty.

Famously Samuel Johnson could not bring himself to re-read the play until forced into doing so by his role as an editor and even to audiences inured to a global world of senseless cruelty and terrible injustice, Shakespeare decision to move away from the original chronicles and deny his characters and his audience one final redemptive moment is both shocking and hard to bear.

It is as if Shakespeare determined to summon up all the miseries of the world and present them in the most elegantly poetical language so that those listening could not close their ears. To make matters worse this is not the tragedy of Euripides or Sophocles; events in Lear’s England do not hinge on the fickle nature of the gods, rather they are summoned into being by a mankind fully in control of their own destiny.

Shakespeare repeatedly shows that in a world without divine intervention suffering falls, without mercy, upon the just and the unjust alike. As we see Lear crumble and Gloucester blinded Shakespeare refuses to relent and even uses Edgar, in the persona of Mad Tom, for a piece of audacious foreshadowing of the horrors to come. By telling the audience that ‘…the worst is not / so long as we can say ‘this is the worst’’ [IV.i] we can hardly claimed to not have been warned.

Is it any wonder that for almost 150 years an alternative version in which the play ends with Cordelia marrying Edgar was the preferred version? What audience could countenance such grotesque horror without the possibility of redemption?

There is so much contained within the play that the role of the director is absolutely central to any production of King Lear. If the director has in mind an actor then it is likely he has already determined how his Lear should be. Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale have a long and fertile history, and a production of this scale must have been on the cards for some time.

One may argue that, at 53, Simon Russell Beale is too young to play Lear and one consequence is that makes the decision to pass his kingdom to the next generation seem even more short-sighted than usual. However the reverse of this is that there is always the tantalising prospect that he may one day return to the role with the wisdom of two further decades behind him.

Mendes introduces us to Lear’s England with a striking opening image; the Olivier space dominated by what appears to be a huge solar eclipse. Other reviews have mentioned its similarity to the eye of Sauron in the Lord of Rings films and it is unlikely that Mendes, no stranger to cinema, missed this clear reference point. Yet the recognition of such a link may be no bad thing as it acts as a subtle primer for the obsession with eyes and sight that exists in King Lear and affixes the notion into the audience; we are to enter a world where even the sun can become blind, so what hope for mere humans.

The image, reminiscent of a giant 0, can be seen to reflect Shakespeare’s repeated reference to ‘nothing’ within the text. In the opening scene Cordelia’s nothing, repeated by Lear as ‘nothing will come of nothing, speak again’ [I.i] begins this trend and we will later have Gloucester’s ‘This great world / Shall so wear out to naught’ [IV.vi].  Lear himself will find himself with nothing after having everything and Gloucester loss of sight is another form of encountering nothingness. King Lear is a play where people suffer the worst privations and are gradually reduced until almost nothing remains; Gloucester is stripped of his sight, Lear his mind, Edgar his status and the Fool and Cordelia, the two characters who perhaps exude the greatest moral worth, are stripped of their lives.

<<Continue to full review>>

A timeless – or should that be conservative – production

Henry V – Noel Coward Theatrebooking until 15 February 2014

So the Michael Grandage season draws to a close with Henry V; one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and one that sees Grandage reunite with Jude Law following their Hamlet in 2009, itself a reminder of Law’s theatrical qualities – something that always feels at risk of being buried among the dead weight of his often mediocre Hollywood movies.

The cinema is a useful starting point for Henry V and possibly one reason why Jude Law was approached for the role, because the play itself is one that feels strangely uncomfortably suited to the stage and its ongoing Jude Law in Henry V, Noel Coward Theatrepopularity is perhaps more due to the rousing film versions of Olivier, Branagh and, more recently, Tom Hiddleston.

The main difficulty of staging Henry V lies in the fact that a large proportion of the plot is set directly in, and around, live battles. Fight scenes (between armies rather than individuals) are very difficult to recreate convincingly on stage.

The playwright or director is left with two choice; to attempt to find a way of portraying the battle on stage, something that is fraught with difficulty and which rarely emerges coherently or providing any sense of the brutality and terror of war, or to stage the battle offstage and intercut with appropriate scenes. Choosing the second option, as Shakespeare creates a problem in that the audience is always aware that the real excitement is happening elsewhere and it is a struggle to maintain focus.

Film has the advantage of having it both ways; jump-cuts can propel the action without the need for laborious changes of scene, the bewilderingly frenetic action of a medieval battle at ground level can be interweaved with a top-down view that allows the viewer to pick up the rhythm and flow of a wider military operation in progress. The editing room also allows for the surging music to flow through the veins and for the hero to be heard amidst the clamour of war.

The ability of this to manipulate the audience is abundantly clear in the music that underpins the fairly basic structure of Branagh’s St Crispin’s Day speech and amongst the pomp and pageantry captured in the Olivier’s classic version of 1944; two scenes that must rank amongst the most watched of any recorded Shakespeare.

And

The legend of Henry V, be it the battle of Agincourt or Shakespeare’s note that tells of ‘ten thousand French / That in the field lie slain’ against the English ‘Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk /Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:/ None else of name; and of all other men / But five and twenty’ [IV.viii], has laid deep roots in what it means to be English and serves to reinforce the enduring myth of the noble island standing up in the face of overwhelming odds to foreign foes.

Shakespeare’s quill is capable of casting long shadows over England’s history. The rehabilitation of Richard III is still a work in progress and Henry VI has no real place in our history following the magnificently succinct dismissal of his legacy in just four lines at the very end of Henry V: ‘Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King / Of France and England, did this king succeed; / Whose state so many had the managing, / That they lost France and made his England bleed’ [V.V]  

So Henry V, with its multi-purpose king who is at home walking among the common man and issuing rousing speeches to inspire the troops as he is seducing French princesses and charming ambassadors, was always likely to chime with the public. He may as well have come straight out of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, lending a helping hand to Arthur as he attempts to pull Excalibur out of a handily placed stone.

Yet for all of this Henry V remains a very curious play, perhaps not in the sense of the grand complexity of King Lear or the later plays, The Tempest and Cymbeline, which play on a strange magical realism at odds with his earlier realism. In comparison Henry V has a plot of the utmost simplicity and which only touches on the psychological depths of his later work. However it is also structured in a way that is oddly obtuse and can test the patience of an unsuspecting audience; it is telling that Frank Kermode spoke of it as a ‘a play that is many respects unloveable but of cunning construction’.

<<Continue to full review>>

Writer vs Director vs Actor in Edward’s epic battle

Much of the critical reaction to the National’s production of Marlow’s Edward II has been withering, and for generally mild-mannered reviewers, bordering on the vitriolic. Leading the charge is, inevitably, Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail who suggests the ‘the only thing murdered in Joe Hill-Gibbins’s puerile, inept production is the play itself’ (ouch) and is followed, perhaps rather too stridently, by Tim Walker in The Telegraph who found ‘In almost 10 years of reviewingedward ii and gaveston: not your everyday production theatre, I doubt I have been confronted with a bigger load of indigestible old tosh’ and couldn’t help but the boot into the subsidised sector while he was at it; ‘the kind of production that simply could not happen in the commercial West End.’

Many people would doubtless agree with Mr Walker’s final sentence but the despair being aimed less at the National and more with eyes turned pointedly north of the river at the risk-averse nature of the private sector behemoths; happy to suck up the most profitable of the tried and tested subsidised productions before reverting back to a steady rotation between Noel Coward, Alan Ayckbourn and A.N Musical complete with X-Factor star.

If the overt agenda setting of Mr Walker’s column can be ignored– and the reference to‘comrades’ at the National rather says it all – it makes an important point in reminding us that the licence to put on a production this lavish ultimately comes from the public purse.

Joe Hill-Gibbin’s is a talented director who had great success at the Young Vic but his career trajectory is taking a worrying turn towards the excessive. A bright start led to a stint at the Young Vic where he created a stunning yet simpleEdwardII and Isabel revival of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant Beauty Queen of Leenane and directed the only Tennessee Williams production I have ever managed to enjoy (The Glass Menagerie).

He scored an unexpectedly huge hit with the fun but rather too hyper-kinetic The Changeling, which showed a suffusion of talent but equally there were times where a restraining hand might have been called for. It is troubling that on the grandest stage of all Hill-Gibbin’s has not only failed to adjust his style but that the flaws, rather than being flattened in the vast space of Olivier, have only been magnified.

Whilst we must allow artistic companies the freedom to make mistakes, watching Hill-Gibbin’s exuberant production reminded me of the wisdom of Bob Balaban’s protective mother in A Mighty Wind justifying the use of a Shetland pony to play polo on the grounds that ‘if he has to fall, he shouldn’t fall from so very high’.

<<Continue to full review>>

Antigone: A very modern ancient Greek tragedy

Antigone – National Theatre, until 21 July 2012

Polly Findlay’s production of Antigone, which runs at a brisk 100 minutes without an interval, is a fine example of balancing the demands of classical Greek tragedy against modern audience sensibilities. In this regard it is helped by Don Taylor’s solid translation that irons out much of the overly heightened poetics in favour of a more earthy realism. This has the dual effect of making the plot a lot less tangled to an audience not raised on the complexities of Grecian mythology and also downplaying the role of the gods in the drama – possibly the single biggest problem in finding contemporary resonance in the surviving works by Greek playwrights.

The text has been filleted to make it performable without a break and this broadly works in the narrative’s favour. Antigone is rooted in conflict  from the opening moments and it doesn’t take long to become apparent that the audience are watching the playing out of a tragedy made inevitable by the choices taken by humans. By removing the interval Findlay is able to keep the tension ratcheted up and allows momentum to build like a wave from first scene to last.

The action is set, effectively if not a little predictably, in the war rooms of Creon’s (Christopher Eccleston) administration. Soutra Gilmour’s set design has done an impressive job of filling the Olivier stage without giving the impression of it being cluttered. This is achieved by partitioning offices towards the back of the stage that has the effect of shortening the vast space by a good 10 metres and forcing most of the action towards the audience. As a result the production feels much more intimate than many staged at the Olivier.

Findlay doesn’t waste the space and there is the constant background buzz of an administration on the brink. The Chorus form the civil servants that run things behind the scenes. There are two very cute moments in the opening moments that help to create a world that is instantly recognisable; the first is what must surely be a deliberate echo of the famous image of Obama and team watching the raid on Osama’s hideout. The second is the chorus’ announcement of the death of Polyneices & Eteocles restaged as the drafting of the press release, with the text being revised to tone down the language of war.

What marks Antigone as one of the most important plays in the Western canon is the fact that, despite it being dated to a period almost 2500 years ago, it is still dealing with issues that are recognisably modern. Other surviving plays are of interest, or contain some certain relevance, to a modern audience but Sophocles captures issues that are still being played out on the world stage in the 21st century.

The idea of the rights of the individual against the rule of the state is one that will never be resolved and Sophocles shows it through an issue that has a stark modern relevance; the death of Osama Bin Laden led to mass protests following his burying at sea, which was seen as breaking Sharia law. This contemporary example amply demonstrates that the right to be buried in accordance with tradition has not diminished over two millennia.

<<Continue to the full review>>