And so goodbye to summer…

For regular theatre goers there can be few markers that you have passed the last dregs of summer than no longer suffering a twinge of jealousy as you walk past all the tourists drinking merrily on the South Bank as you take your seat in the hot, sweaty and dark auditorium.

Not that, as we were constantly reminded, this was a summer like any other. In effect normality went into a two month hiatus as London, and in time the rest of the country, came to a complete standstill as we eventually recognised that we are not nearly as useless as we enjoy telling each other we are. The trains arrived, the people were friendly, we avoided being blown up by terrorists or trigger-happy missile silos, the army ran the logistics and G4S ran nothing and the Mo-Bot became a meme. In short the Olympics and the Paralympics happened and everyone forgot about the rain.

In between all of this excitement the London theatre scene quietly ticked over in the background. Unsurprisingly Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s predictions of audience carnage proved entirely wrong as the West End’s goal of relieving punters of ever increasing amounts of money from their cash-strapped wallets in exchange for third-rate musicals culled from second-rate films continued remorselessly onwards. Luckily for the rest of us the National Theatre proved that affordable theatre can have depth, resonance and even the odd sprinkling of star power.

The revival of London Road – transplanted to the Olivier – was an example of how to draw on a weighty subject with a lightness of touch that is rare among those more used to the deadening hand of television. Having somehow contrived to miss the first run, despite being aware of the sacksful of critical praise that it gathered meant that this was a must see. The fact that the engrossing Katherine Fleetwood reprised her role only added as an extra incentive – an actor indelibly marked in my brain following her unforgettable turn as the strongest Lady Macbeth I have had the fortune to see, and surely a match for Judy Dench’s classic portrayal, in Rupert Goold’s memorable production.

How unfortunate to have been released in the same year as the equally critically-acclaimed and certainly rather more family-friendly Matilda, London Road never received the awards it richly deserved but the fact it could sell out the Olivier for a musical based on interviews with people who lived on the same road as Richard Wright, the Ipswich serial killer, tells its own story about the power of the production.

A truly haunting piece, skilfully manipulated and never less than engaging, it raises many interesting questions about the stories that aren’t told; the impact on the community, the everyday people, of a media circus and a major police operation. Whilst there are legitimate questions over how composite characters reflect the truth and whether they bring forward narrative interest over narrative truth, there is enough in the words and the playful skill with which they are turned into song that sets this apart as a musical of rare power and intelligence.

Alongside this, the Olivier season included Simon Russell Beale giving us Timon of Athens. Without fail described as a difficult play, Timon of Athens has so many contemporary resonances that it should mean more to us. The parallels of the first half to the modern day are so clear, so apparent, that one almost hopes that the play doesn’t resume after the interval. This production, like so many before it, faced and failed the classic problem of trying to unpick and restitch Shakespeare to craft a specific relevance to modern times.

Watching the rise and inevitable fall of Timon, one is both appalled by the actions of Athenians but also frustrated by Timon’s obvious naiveté. It is hard to truly accept that Timon could have fared so well in society based on the actions we see in the play. The fault here is part Shakespeare and part Simon Russell Beale – who was a strangely passive and reedy presence in a play that really demands a lot of heft. His slightly cherubic public school persona – so perfect as Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time – feels out of place in his hermit hovel on the outskirts of the city.

The most interesting aspect of the play is to follow the generally accepted fact that the play was written by two different playwrights. Shakespeare, it is assumed, is responsible for the grandstanding and most of the second half, and Middleton, who is believed to behind the city-based Athenians. It is clear that when one thinks of the play in these terms, it is Shakespeare who comes off worst. Middleton’s play fizzes with a comic satire and adds to his reputation as one of the great comic playwrights of the Elizabethan era. His background characters hit the stage fully formed and when interacting with one another there is a robust and fascinating take on the avarice of Athenian society but the play too often grinds to a deathly halt once the moralising fury of Timon takes centre stage.

It was a disappointing production underpinning a disappointing play. There are many who call Simon Russell Beale one of our finest character actors, yet the case is still to be made of his credentials as a great Shakespearian actor following his rather undercooked Falstaff with this forgettable Timon.

Advance Notice – Highlights of the Autumn Season 2012

In recent days we have had announcements from both the Royal Court and Michael Grandage of their upcoming seasons. Representing the very different ends of the theatrical experience for audiences; the small intimately thrilling Royal Court where so many of our great playwrights were given a space to write and the cavernous and wallet-sapping Noel Coward Theatre, the name alone indicative of its West End heritage. It is heartening to think of Grandage’s past as Artistic Director of The Crucible and a ten-year stint at the Donmar and realise that it is still possible to trace a line from the heart of regional theatre all the way to the money-making centre of the British stage.

One might grumble about the prices of Grandage’s plays but it cannot be denied that a West End line-up containing two Shakespeare’s, a McDonagh and a new play by John Loga, whilst, maybe not groundbreaking, provides rather more interest than the usual fare of rehashed musicals, Coward revivals and vehicles for ageing American celebrities. Ticket prices may be steep at the top end but, as I have commented elsewhere, the £10 tickets actually undercut the National’s Travellex offer and, if star power is what you are after, provide fantastic value for money. Whilst advertised as ‘moderately restricted view’ I have found the seats to be absolutely adequate and you would miss virtually none of the action. Given they are available in both the Royal and Upper Circles they arguably offer better value for money than the Gallery tickets that are the next cheapest but are  already edging towards an uncomfortable £27.50 for seats right up in the gods.

With information about the National Theatre and the Barbican already available we can see that the upcoming months look very rosy indeed. And as a public service, Civilian Theatre is very happy to provide you with a month-by-month guide to the most interesting plays over the coming months (a growing requirement as it is becoming more and more evident that theatre is going the same way as gigs and stand-up comedy and selling its major events anything up to 18 months in advance – Jude Law in Hamlet in November 2013 anyone? Not busy I hope?)

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September 2012

London Road (National)

This may be a last chance to catch one of the most interesting and innovative musicals in recent years. It sadly had the misfortune to go up against the Matilda juggernaut in all the major award ceremonies and as a result came home empty-handed but this tale, based on documentary footage taken from Ipswich in the aftermath of the discovery of five bodies in 2006 and put to music by Adam Cork, is one of the most complex and affecting new musicals in a long time. A real slow-burn hit, its success can be seen in the major summer revival it was given by the National just a year after it was first introduced. September is possibly the last time you will be seeing it in quite a while so go while you can.

Mademoiselle Julie (Barbican)

Hopefully not setting myself up for a fall after the general disappointment of Cate Blanchett in Big and Small – where the size of the play failed to meet the stature of the actor – we see Juliette Binoche meet Strindberg as another entry in the Barbican’s generally excellent international programming. Binoche is one of the deserved greats of French acting; an actress capable of turning down Spielberg’s Jurassic Park for a role in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (now that is range). The set photos are fascinating and suggest a radical take on a work famed for its naturalistic excellence:

love and information (Royal Court)

Whilst not to everyone’s tastes, a new play by Caryl Churchill is certainly not something to be ignored. One of Britain’s leading playwrights over the last 40 years and an icon for the current generation of female writers who grew up on Top Girls and Cloud 9, Churchill returns to the Royal Court with a new play, love and information. Details are scarce other but it looks likely that it will be a continuation of Churchill’s abiding fascination with non-linear story-telling and the use of the less naturalistic elements of theatre, as she creates a panoramic landscape of over 100 characters.

Hamlet (Queen Elizabeth Hall)

In what was very high up Civilian Theatre’s ‘Must Watch’ list was this import from Denmark – The Tiger Lillies performing Hamlet. Unfortunately recent news tells us that it has been cancelled for ‘scheduling issues’ but if they can find a slot for it in 2013 then I urge all to go and see it. The Tiger Lillies describe their own music as Brechtian street opera and are instantly memorable for all of those who had the fortune to see their version of Shockheaded Peter many moons ago. For those who have missed their vaudevillian morality tales then here is a performance of a song from Shockheaded Peter:

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For more on the Autumn Season, including highlights from October and November then please click through for more.

More Shakespeare than you can shake a spear at

Ok, while I may have just been put myself in the running for most laboured pun of 2011, it has been done with the best of intentions. As the Olympics loom into view, it finally appears that the country is kicking into gear and putting together an impressive programme that will deliver on some of things that we undoubtedly do best (and no, sadly it isn’t the 100m).

It may be somewhat predictable but it certainly looks like the UK are planning to cash in one of their most lasting assets – Shakespeare. And in a fine display of collaboration, venues as dispirate as the Globe, the Barbican, the Roundhouse and the Hammersmith Riverside Studios are embarking on a truly Olympean programming schedule. The Globe alone will be performing every single one of the agreed Shakespeare canon (and on a sidenote for Mr Emmerich, please note that it is the World Shakespeare Festival, not the World Earl of Oxford Festival).

And in keeping with the Olympian spirit, the programmers have scoured the world to bring a truly international flavour to the festival. Whether it is a Tunisian Macbeth, an Afghan Comedy of Errors or a Zimbabwean Two Gentleman of Verona, there is something to suit any palette and demonstrates just how important Shakespeare is to the world of theatre. It underscores that Shakespeare, a playwright occasionally derided my philistines as being too complex for modern audiences, can operate in any language, subject to incredibly varied styles and still emerge as the single most important dramatist in history. And the philistines? To quote the great man himself “More of your conversation will infect my brain”, and if a country in as much turmoil as Afghanistan can stage a complex identity-swapping play like the Comedy of Errors, I think it is surely not to much to expect an audience to watch it.

5 to watch this summer

1) Timon of Athens – National Theatre, Dates to be confirmed

It is generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays. After a first half that generally cracks alone and builds to a crescendo with Timon turning on those he had previously regarded as his friends and retreating to be a hermit on the outskirts of the city, the second half really does present a problem for a director – it consisting mainly of scene after scene of visitors and a more and more unpleasant Timon. However it is this challenge which means it makes the list – Simon Russell Beale is one our finest current Shakespearian actors and if he can’t do justice to the part then it may go down as one of Shakespeare’s very few missteps.

2) The Comedy of Errors – The Globe, 30 – 31 May

A chance to catch something really special. This Afghanistan company performed Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2005; the groundbreaking nature of this shouldn’t be overstated. In a country that was ruled a few years previously by the Taliban and drama completely forbidden, we had reached a point where men and women were able to act together. Along the way many taboos were broken; women did not always wear headscarves and lovers held hands. The Globe has managed to get their first performances outside of Kabul and they will be putting on The Comedy of Errors, a play of mistaken identifies and farcical situations.  The results could be as spectacular as they are interesting.

3) Hamlet – The Globe, 02 – 03 June

Now if anything deserves the title unmissable it is probably this production from the legendary Lithuanian director Eimuntas Nekrosius. His Hamlet is regarded as one of the most celebrated Shakespearean productions of our age and for the first time, after substantial world tours, it comes to London for the first time. Yes, it is Hamlet and it will be 3 hours and it will be in Lithuanian and it is the Globe and you may have to stand up. But there are times when you must suffer for your art and, due to the rather Anglo-american focus of most British theatre, this offers a rare chance to see one of  the true greats of European theatre. Simply: go, see.

 4) The Rest is Silence – Hammersmith Riverside Studios, 13 – 23 June

Yes, I know there are two Hamlet’s in the list and many people think that one is more than enough for one year. However given   that it is a dreamthinkspeak production, it is quite likely that this will be Hamlet only in so far Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights is  an accurate depiction of Bronte’s novel. We are promised a textual and visual deconstruction of the play, which will utilise performance, film and installation to cut through the textual certainties that we may be used to. For some this may already sound hideously prententious and, given their reviews of Ian Rickson’s latest Hamlet at the Young Vic, it is unlikely Messirs Billington and Spencer will be rushing to see it. For those who remain alive to the possibilities that modern multimedia presents to a playwright of Shakespeare’s calibre, it also can be seen as an exciting opportunity.

5) Romeo and Juliet – The Globe, 19 – 20 June 

And deservedly back to the Globe for no. 5. Providing the spine for the festival and dedicating their versatile space to companies from around the world across May and June, hopefully they will get the audience and publicity they deserve for this ambitious and difficult project. An almost guaranteed sell-out – a Brazilian Romeo & Juliet at the height of summer should be a winner. The production is regarded as one of the most famous productions coming out of the Americas’. Grupo Galpão’s brings a carnival atmosphere to the Globe; mixing circus, dance and musicc with traditional Brazilian folk culture to produce something incredibly special. We are talking passion with a capital P.

You can find out far, far more about the World Shakespeare Festival here: http://www.worldshakespearefestival.org.uk/

You can find out more about the World Cities Festival here: http://www.worldstageslondon.com/

And my own earlier witterings on the World Cities Festival is here: http://civiliansguidetothetheatre.com/2011/10/04/the-cultural-olympiad-better-late-then-never/