A moving performance (comes with own travelator)

The Trial – Young Vic, until 22 August 2015 (Tickets)

Given the number of perplexed reviews that accompanied Richard Jones’ production of Kafka’s The Trial, it is a surprise that so many critics avoided the obvious puns the title allows (the honourable exception naturally goes to the Daily Mail). This production certainly reinforces the impression that Richard Jones is a director whose work divides critics between those who feel that his directorial hand does not give the text a chance to breathe, and others who find value in the kitsch lunacy that he establishes through his visual style.

It is a style that is so unique as to be instantly recognisable. The importance that visuals play in his work means that credit ought to be shared with his regular collaborators; designer, Miriam Buether, and costumier, Nicky Gillibrand. In both Public Enemy (his reworking of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People) and The Trial, he creates a world that could have come out of a Lynchian vision of a Californian wife-swapping party. The colour palette leans defiantly towards the 1970’s and is almost aggressively lurid. Yet behind the warmth of the orange and peach tones he establishes a clinical coldness that is reminiscent of Kubrick’s best work.

The Kubrick reminder can hardly be avoided as Nick Gill’s translation gives Kinnear’s Josef K an internal monologue written in a form of English that is not so different from Alex in A Clockwork Orange. This is the most problematic aspect of a mostly enjoyable production. Having spent a week reflecting, I am no closer to why the decision was made to give Josef K this curious internalised language. The play appears to suggest The Trial is located in sexual angst (a contentious point in its right) and Josef spend much time recounting the historic fantasies that have turned him into the person he has become. It might make sense that the dialogue was babyish, as it would lean towards giving the play a Freudian spin, but instead it is more of a freeform organic narrative that flexes adult English to its own purposes.

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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

Masterful Richard II proves the BBC does ‘do’ Shakespeare

Richard II – BBC2 and BBC HD, until late July 2012

Settling into watching Richard II in glorious HD on the BBC last night it was difficult to ignore the Beeb’s previous ill-fated attempts to engage with ‘the Bard’. Whilst Civilian Theatre has a better opinion than most of the BBC’s attempt to film all the Shakespeare plays; where else could we see an Othello with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins as the leads, or a young Helen Mirren playing Rosalind in As You Like It and Imogen in Cymbeline – it is still hard to avoid the criticisms of wobbly sets and at times really duff stage-to-screen acting.

However the BBC’s reputation has been pulled significantly out of the mire after their last two adaptations of acclaimed stage productions – Tennant’s Hamlet and Stewart’s Macbeth- received sensitive transitions. Goold’s Macbeth in particular had a visual style that was magnificently assured given his background as a stage director. So hearing that he had been tasked with opening proceedings with Richard II did a lot to calm the nerves.

This calm was only reinforced by the sweeping shot across Richard II’s court; Ben Wishaw as Richard; Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt; Rory Kinnear as his son, Bolingbroke; the two David’s – Suchet and Morrisey – as father and son of York; and James Purefroy, steaming under armour as Mowbray. It goes without saying that once such accomplished actors are placed in position then there is little left to do but let them unfurl Shakespeare’s glorious language.

Richard II, compared to the rest of the history plays, is difficult. It has less of the cartoonish villain that makes Richard III such a crowd-pleaser; it lacks a comic core of Falstaff or the jingoism of Henry V. It is a wordy play about a poor king and bitter nobles. To make it worse Shakespeare, as a stylistic tic, vastly increases the amount of rhyming verse. For those untrained in plays of the era the language is often perceived to be a barrier – and Richard II does risk encapsulating everything that people think they dislike about Shakespeare – it is difficult, unnatural and can be hard to follow.

Goold and the cast respond to this challenge magnificently. For perhaps the first time we see that TV could have the edge of stage productions in some aspects. The history plays, far more than the tragedies and comedies, are complex, difficult and rely on a certain level of prior-knowledge that Shakespeare contemporaries would have had but that current audiences, for the most part, lack.

The ability to zoom-in, jump-cut and provide proper location filming – sweeping landscapes and equisite interiors that provide a true sense of time and place – thus provides an essential element in driving the plot. No longer must we scan the faces of a court scene to decide who Richard is castigating, the camera does this for us. Some may cry foul but this is both good TV – no-one needs completely static shots – and also good for accessibility. It is a period location but that does not mean that modern stylistic devices shouldn’t be used.

Goold deserves a huge amount of credit. This, and his Macbeth, were excellent adaptations that demonstrated he has a natural eye for balance and an assured touch. He may well work alongside a mighty fine cinematographer but having seen a number of his plays staged, it is clear that he has an innate understanding of composition and brings to the theatre filmic elements and here he proves he can work his artistry in reverse.


Watch out George R. R. Martin, Shakespeare’s coming

The BBC certainly seem to have taken a leaf out of HBO’s book with their new preview trailer for their Shakespeare Unlocked series. Right down to the title ‘The Hollow Crown’ – a fabulously fantasy touch – they have gone out of their way to draw on the huge water-cooler success of Game of Thrones.

With season 2 drawing to a close on Sky Atlantic, it seems like the perfect opportunity to launch The Hollow Crown – four successive history plays from Richard II through to Henry V. The cast looks suitably stellar as every high-profile actor going has put themselves forward for some high profile thesping. The limited casting released on the BBC Website hints at the quality – Rory Kinnear, Tom Hiddlestone, Ben Wishaw and the mighty Patrick Stewart (getting the rights to one of Shakespeare’s most well known speeches in ‘this royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle…’). 

And the trailer? Well isn’t this just mouthwatering.

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