Monthly Archives: July 2014

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE – Young Vic SE1

 

DELUSION AND DESIRE IN THE DEEP SOUTH

 

If you are on one of the high back-row benches there is a bar to rest your feet on. It can create for a moment the illusion of being on a roller-coaster, braced for a wild ride. By the second half of this stunning production that sense was powerful indeed. One would have been quite grateful for a lap-strap.

 

The Young Vic is particularly suited to Tennessee Williams. Its habitual audiences (I came a day after the press night) have a warmth often missing in more formal and expensive theatres. You are more likely to hear gasps, even murmurs of “Nooo!”. This passionate unselfconscious identification serves the lyrical compassion of Williams very well, for his great gift is to lay before us the flawed, the deluded and disappointed, giving them language so beautiful that love reaches out even to the worst.

 

Director Benedict Andrews as director has updated setting and costumes, putting Blanche duBois, her sister Stella and Stella’s thuggish husband Stanley Kowalski right here in the 21st century. And although it is a play of its time, of a tough new America kicking aside the gentilities of the old South, this works : skinny, sensous Vanessa Kirby in her pedal-pushers and sneakers conveys the downwardly-mobile contentment of Stella, Ben Foster’s Kowalski is a volatile, chippy, crop-haired ex-sergeant from anyone’s army, and Gillian Anderson’s Blanche – over-groomed and unstable in her desperate refinement – could again belong to any age. Magda Willi’s design is revolutionary too (literally: the skeletally suggested two-room apartment at 632 Elysian Fields turns slowly round through most of the play, making its first uneasy move at the moment when Blanche dives into her sister’s cupboard for the first drink.

 

Its movement, like a slow-motion grinding of inexorable Fortune’s wheel, means that our view of the claustrophobic struggle is enriched by seeing “offstage” moments in bathroom or bedroom: around it on the floor and fire-escape occasional neighbours bicker or chase, and at one heart-stilling moment, with Blanche spilling out her terrible truths to Mitch in dim silhouette, a Mexican vendor wanders by offering “Flores por los muertes” as if they are the dead walking. As Mitch leaves, Blanche drags on a Miss Havisham ballgown to deck her latest fantasy before Kowalski – with horrid symbolism – digs impatiently through the layers of pink net to rape her.

 

 

Much has been said about Gillian Anderson’s remarkable performance, taking Blanche through to final pathetic craziness through superior, princessy snobbery, unsettling flirtatiousness, strident rebukes to the hitherto contented Stella and lady-of-the manor insults to Kowalski (a very funny moment has him standing behind her in the doorway, hearing her tirade about his apehood). It is a brilliant performance, in a part which is always disturbing because her desperate Southern-Lady monologues about culture , beauty and art and a ‘little temporary magic that ought to be the truth” are, face it, actually expressing just what the average theatregoer believes about art and culture. Thus the very arguments which hold us in our seats are being brutally guyed as a cover for Blanche’s degradation and drunken descent into madness. Cruel.

 

Other performances are also remarkable: Vanessa Kirby’s Stella catches the practical sensuality and shrugging, loving acceptance of her bit-of-rough husband, but also brings to life her love of Blanche and the old fealty of the lost Belle-Rive homestead. And Foster – who at first I thought too slight and uncharismatic for Kowalski – soon astonishes by making sudden terrifying bursts of violence and dry pragmatic irony both seem genuinely and credibly part of his reality. It’s a London stage debut, and a tremendous one. A word too for Corey Johnson, the most moving, awkwardly dignified Mitch I have yet seen.

 
Tough stuff, and though well over three hours – you stagger out on to the Cut just before eleven, all passion spent – it never fails to grip. There is a crashing, alarming rock soundscape by Paul Arditti with music by Alex Baranowski: contemporary too, but not distractingly so. After its marvellous grim A View from the Bridge, the Young Vic’s courageous freshness of vision wins again.
box office http://www.youngvic.org 020 7922 2922 to 19 Sept
supported: Bruno Wang & an anonymous donor

rating five   5 Meece Rating

NB: it will be broadcast live to over 550 UK cinemas and many more worldwide on 16 September as part of National Theatre Live

ALSO NB – Young Vic offers its first day seat lottery: names taken at the box office in person at 5pm with winners (2 seats each) announced at 5.30pm for each evening’s performance and at 1pm (winners announced at 1.30) for matinees.  All tickets in the lottery £20 or £10 for under-26s.

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PORGY AND BESS – Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park

GERSHWIN’S GRANDEUR:    SPLENDOUR ON THE GRASS

 
From the moment Nicola Hughes wanders onto the stage in the overture, pulls on a strident red dress, sniffs her “happy dust” and flings herself into a Maenad dance of frenzy, we know this is one of the great operatic heroines: the ultimate hot-patootie, bad boy’s moll, the scandal of Catfish Row. Her story is as operatically gripping as any Violetta or Mimi. From the dirt-poor simplicity of 1930’s black America and a novel by D & D Heyward, George and Ira Gershwin conjured up immense harmonic distresses, a tale of tyranny and addiction, sexual obsession, heroism and murder. That songs like “Summertime” and “It ain’t necessarily so” get hoicked out and covered for mere entertainment is almost a pity; with this magnificent production, under the sighing trees and sunset glow of a London park, Timothy Sheader (and musical director David Shrubsole) rightly restore it to its towering emotional grandeur.

 
Almost entirely sung-through – indeed to the point that the brief spoken dialogue sometimes stands out with an added intensity – this version is trimmed and blended until it moves with ferocious momentum, never allowing the musical-theatre indulgence of big showstopping numbers. Indeed when numbers are big enough to win their own applause it feels almost an interruption. What matters is the trajectory of Bess: the flight from justice of her murderous lover, her rescue by the crippled beggar Porgy, her reform, sexual obsession and faltering addiction.

 
Sheader eschews any attempt at a literally picturesque shoreside village and sets it on a bare stage, chairs and tables and fishing-nets becoming boats,doors, beds. This gives Liam Steel’s choreography a wide expressive freedom, the ensemble sometimes forming square choirs, sometimes violently or joyfully mobile, sometimes symbolically still , always serving the narrative momentum. But the huge abstract backdrop by Katrina Lindsay is remarkable: a sort of vast, crumpled shining copper sheet in which you can almost see faces, sensual folds, stitches. Onto this Rick Fisher’s brilliant lighting plot projects the mood: warmly bright before a real sunset at the happy island picnic, hellishly flaming as the brutal Crown returns to claim Bess, pure and silver as faithful Porgy waits and the gospel choir sing to “Doctor Jesus”. It is truly terrifying in the storm. But again, all of this only serves, with pinpoint atmospheric accuracy, the unrolling universal tragedy.

 
Hughes’s Bess is ravishingly sexy, dangerous, troubled, sweet; lured back to the happy-dust by Cedric Neal’s sinister, light-toned pusher Sporting Life (in a bright yellow suit and pink trilby) she evokes both the conflict and horrible relief of succumbing. Rufus Bond’s twisted crippled Porgy raises a shiver with deep-felt basso cries of loneliness, but gains irresistible ungainly charm in his happy selfless love (“I’ve got plenty o’nuttin!”). Mariah is, as you would expect from Sharon D.Clarke, a ferocious matriarch to remember (and model yourself on, at my age). And Philip Boykin as Crown is so satisfyingl, villainously macho that he got a volley of pleased boos at the curtain call, and roars of approval for dropping an ironic curtsey in return.

 
But individual praise seems jarring, however deserved. Because this marvellous production is what it should be: a true ensemble, everyone from the dance-captain to the lighting crew serving the Gershwin genius and the pity and terror of the human condition. Unforgettable.

 

box office 0844 826 4242 to 23 August
rating: five  5 Meece Rating      Male director mouse resized

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THE NETHER – Royal Court SW1

 

A WORLD FOR THE WICKED

 

 

 

 

It quotes a Roethke poem: “Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire..” Indeed it is. In a shiningly hyper-real world suspended in the air, a pretty little girl in a Victorian pinafore welcomes a middle-aged man to her storybook bedroom, with dolls’ house and rocking-chair. Suggestively she strokes a toy and indicates that he can do what he likes to her, including savage murder. “Perhaps you’d like to start with the axe? That usually comes after, but if you’re more inclined that way…” Later, she reassures him “It’s all right, I always resurrect”.

 

 

 

 

 

For she is not real,nor is the room itself: perfect in glassy detail, a shining box framed in screen-saver foliage. We have watched this elegant period house and its inhabitants seem to form, shimmering, from grids and lines: a virtual paradise for paedophiles, complete in sound, touch, smell. The Internet has evolved into “The Nether”, where businesses, educations and fantasies flourish . Wealthy people can even afford to “cross over” opting for life-support and life entirely in these unreal worlds.

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, before returning to daily reality men like this can be avatars doing unspeakable things, “without consequence”. Below the “screen” – live actors seeming unreal – a detective at a bare table “inworld” is interrogating the patriarchal, pompous businessman “Papa” who creates and hosts this exquisite child brothel, demanding where he hides the server.

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, once again the Royal Court is chilling our spine (its Let the Right One In vampire-fest is running in the West End). But Jennifer Haley’s 80-minute thriller is not after mere sensation, but proves one of the most stunningly intelligent, important and brilliantly executed pieces of the year. Co-produced with Headlong and designed by Es Devlin, it makes brilliant visual use of the idea of virtuality, with the perfect floating world forming and fading above the grim interrogation table. Jeremy Herrin directs a text so understatedly strong that every line and gesture builds intensity. Papa is Stanley Townsend, bluff and defiant; the tense troubled interrogator is Amanda Hale, Ivanno Jeremiah is an undercover investigator – or is he? – and David Beames is a nervy, puzzling, unhappy customer. On opening night the child was played by Zoe Brough: a professional debut of unnerving assurance. She is not, by the way, required to undress beyond long Victorian pantaloons, or to do or say anything unduly troubling. Except perhaps about the axe. That the whole situation is troubling – and that she is in fact a complex sequence of computer code – is is a paradox we are drawn towards, fascinated, horrified, questioning.

 

 

 

 

 

Its strength is in those very topical questions: how far can we police imagination? Should we cavil when imagination can be fed with such realism? How wrong is it to indulge and encourage cruel and horrible fantasies if there is no “inworld” consequence? Is it corrupting, or better than loosing such desires in the real world? It is not only paedophilia we should think about: not far from you now, the odds are that some fresh-faced 12-year-old is happily shooting ‘whores‘ in a game like Grand Theft Auto. As Papa says “porn drives technology” – always has, ever since 19c dirty photos. His codes, motivated by awful urges, are now so advanced and effective in their realism that he suspects the law-envorcers of “stealing them to sell to Disney”.

 

 

 

Serious sci-fi has always had this ability to ask big philosophical questions, and Haley does it with finesse and humanity. She also provides two tremendous, unexpected twists towards the end. Who can ask more?

 

 

 

box office 0207 565 5000 to 9 August
Sponsor: Coutts
Rating: five    5 Meece Rating

 

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HOLY WARRIORS Shakespeare’s Globe SE1

CROSS , CRESCENT, CRUELTY, CONFUSION
When this “fantasia on the third crusade” picks up momentum and reaches the summit of its oddity – a spectacular, if rather foggy peak – there comes an ensemble chant of “When does the West act wisely in these lands?”. Er, not often. Little wisdom is evident in the 11c declaration that certain bits of other people’s countries were “Outremer”, and Christian-ruled. Or in the 1099 sack of Jerusalem. Or the crusades. The partition of Palestine and the Balfour declaration could have had happier results, too, as could the Iraq war.
Not that the locals were models of benign wisdom: you could take this play as a requiem for some terrible ideas. “Caliphate” is one, “Christendom” another. “Holy War” is one of the worst concepts ever, and it is ludicrously unspiritual to believe in “Holy Places”: lumps of earth worth killing the locals for, even if they were mildly letting you visit…
David Eldridge has bitten off a lot in this pageant-play, and Dominic Dromgoole deserves credit for putting it on just as Syria, Gaza and the civil war in Iraq dominate the news. But clarity of exposition is not Eldridge’s strong point, and unless you’re a medieval historian with a taste for broadsheet middle-east analysis, buy the programme and study the historical essays and timeline first. Slowly.

 

It opens with Globesque spectacle: Director James Dacre uses the big space with confidence. Priests chant, Saladin brandishes his scimitar, a great jewelled cross descends and Raymond of Tripoli rants to King Guy (no, me neither, till I read the notes). “If Jerusalem is lost” he roars “Christendom will be lost and the penitent willwalk like lost souls on this earth forever more”.
Scenes whirl on, with dynastic marriage bickering which resolves into fierce Eleanor of Aquitaine urging her son Richard the Lionheart (John Hopkins) to war. Gregory VIII urges “every true Christian Lord and man of honour” to win eternal life by zapping the infidels. But its success as a history-play is hampered by gratingly archaic lines and a lack of earthy commoners who don’t see the point (Shakespeare always put them in). And when Berengaria invites the Lionheart to bed with the words “I will make for you a gift of sensuality that will smooth your troubles” you wince. Actors should not be forced to speak such lines. Not outside Spamalot. It isn’t fair.
Later Saladin reappears in modern militaria surrounded by a chorus in chrono-clashing helmets, turbans, business suits, epaulets and battle-fatigues; Napoleon has a row with King Abdulla, and fragments of real 20c speeches raise the interest, not least King Faisal’s “We Arabs have none of the racial or religious animosity against the Jews” while warning that imposing a Jewish homeland in Palestine – where many Jews had lived in peace – might bring strident new arrivals with little respect for “their duties under a Muslim power or a foreign Christian power mandated by the League of Nations”.
Begin, Ben-Gurion, Sadat, and kindly President Carter of Camp David flit by. Blair speaks to Congress after 9/11. Richard and Saladin bicker about who massacred most people, and Eleanor of Aquitaine (a fine Geraldine Alexander) returns to riff about what a mess it all is 800 years on. Richard becomes a modern British soldier, effing and blinding then suddenly going all medieval about how he will rip cherubs from their clouds to win the New Jerusalem. George W Bush gives him a sword.
In consort with an earnest study of the programme and source books it could be thought-provoking (if depressing). It looks good. Elena Langer’s music is enjoyable. But it’s a bit of a mess.
box office 020 7902 1400 to 24 August

Rating: two  2 meece rating

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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE – Noel Coward Theatre SW1

RUFF TRADE….

 
Young Shakespeare, a struggling player and playwright, falls for the upper-class Viola de Lesseps, not knowing that she has dressed as a boy to join his cast. She is to be given in marriage to a boorish aristocrat, and it all goes wrong enough to inspire him to write Romeo And Juliet.

 
Mills & Boon stuff? You betcha. The film was pop-schlock: posters blaring “love is the only inspiration” – but was redeemed by the wit of co-author Tom Stoppard, with sly theatrical in-jokes and pleasurably recognizable references: a Banquo moment, a Malvolio moment, an Othello joke. Now it gains another authorial layer: the stage premiere is adapted by Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliott, and directed with fun-loving brio by Declan Donnellan. Whose only real mistake is letting it run a good ten minutes too long.

 
He adds one particularly precious gift. The film’s Oscar-winning Viola was Gwyneth Paltrow: glacially glamorous but not noted for humour. Whereas Donnellan has cast that gorgeously antic spirit and adornment of the RSC, Lucy Briggs-Owen. She is that rare mixture, a sly comedienne who is also an honest conduit of emotional truth. I am less sure about Tom Bateman’s Will, but it is not a cherishable part: a sulky hunk dependent on Kit Marlowe (a nice ironic David Oakes) for his best ideas but oafishly giving Kit’s name to get himself out of trouble. He conceals the existence of his wife and twins at Stratford from his trusting virginal admirer, and succumbs to self-pity when Marlowe is killed. Even in a pastiche, this combination of caddishnesses makes it dangerously hard to believe in the great words and sentiments emanating from him.

 

Great cameos,though. Colin Ryan is the creepy boy Webster who loves corpses, Ferdy Roberts the backer “I am the money!” seduced by the offer of a bit-part and fretting about his hat; Henslowe and Burbage the rival impresarios, and Anna Carteret coolly magnificent as Queen Elizabeth The in-jokes keep on coming: rehearsals full of “insurmountable obstacles on the way to immiment disaster”, funny auditions, and Henslowe’s wailing insistence that a play needs comedy, love interest “and a dog”. The dog is real, and achieves glory near the end (I assume Alistair Petrie has a portion of steak secreted up his gallygaskins to create one pleasing moment. It also permits the line “out damned Spot” (should have cast a dalmatian).

 
At times it did all feel like a we-know-Shakespeare sixth-form revue, though Briggs-Owen’s balance of exuberant clowning and real sharp emotion always raises it. But Donnellan deftly manages the switchback between well-rendered tragic verse and bathos, and there are splendid fights, especially the stage-fencing rehearsal which degenerates into a real brawl.

 
It is beautifully set within a section of Elizabethan theatre, balconies serving for domestic – and, of course, balcony – scenes; conversations are held in circling, stamping galliards, and group compositions are fit to paint. There’s also a nice conceit whereby non-participants hang around on the galleries watching scenes. Paddy Cunneen composes the incidental music (on which rather too much of the mood depends): the songs oddly shrill but the instrumentals mellow.

 
So who’s it for? Teenagers will enjoy the permission to roust and laugh about the too-often sacred Bard, summer visitors score a Shakespeare-lite experience without getting rained on, fighting for a parking spot in Stratford or having to puzzle over which Lord is which and why the sentences work backwards. I really wanted to love it, and thank it for some laughs and for Briggs-Owen. But to be honest it isn’t quite funny enough, or quite clever enough, or quite touching enough.

 
box office 020 7400 1234

rating:  three     3 Meece Rating

 

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AMADEUS Chichester Festival Theatre

DIVINITY AND DEADLY HATRED

 

 

One day someone will put Milton’s Paradise Lost on stage and cast Rupert Everett as Satan, the bitter archangel. For now he is Peter Shaffer’s Salieri: court composer to Emperor Joseph of Austria. Here is a functionary ploddingly competent in his task of “ceremonializing the mediocrity” of a stultifying court, but who has dreamed childhood that he would write something transcendent and“blaze like a comet across Europe” to the glory of heaven. He made a bargain at sixteen with the deity of the frescoes in his native Italy: not the soppy compassionate long-haired Christs but the “old, candlesmoked God the Father.” He swore to do good works and be chaste in return for that divine gift.

 

God threw it back at him. Exalted music did spring in that 18th century court: a miracle of “crushed harmonies, glancing collisions, agonizing delights: an absolute beauty”. But it was not Salieri who wrote it but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: a childish, obscenely foul-mouthed, capering sensualist with a high infuriating giggle who “without even setting down his billiard cue” is somehow visited with music perfect, complete, and immortal. With still bitterer irony, it is Salieri himself who is first doomed to recognize its greatness while the court dullards say “too many notes”. Enraged at the unfairness like the Prodigal Son’s elder brother, he sabotages and undermines the ebullient young man’s career and bring him to an early death.

 

The brilliance of Shaffer’s play, immaculately served by Jonathan Church’s cast, is not particularly in the plot – which is linear, a downhill slope – or even in the powerful raging jealousy of its antihero. It lies in the identification of a particular and individual agony: a man with deep belief in the transcendent and a gift of rare artistic perception who cannot rejoice in the art of another because it is not his own. Everett – tall, gaunt, hot-eyed, quivering with fastidious distaste for the clownish romping Mozart – expresses that “agonizing delight” in his finest stage performance to date. On the night I saw him he seemed to be fighting vocal problems, but in a performance this finely judged moments of hoarseness actually added to that terrible sense of discord, a croaking envy. Fits the play’s time-frame too: for this is an old, wispily grey man telling us his story. In unfussy transformations – a swift dark wig and a straightening back – rhe re-enacts the time 32 years before when his hatred flowered.

 

The play, though, does not all stand or fall only with this towering portrait. Joshua McGuire’s Mozart – a head shorter than the black-coated, pallid, square-browed Everett – is perfect; a rounded, rosy-lipped romping sensualist, irritating and shrill, flawed and human conduit for divine music (which Church uses judiciously, without the overkill which marred the film). In his last moments McGuire achieves profound pathos, as does Jessie Buckley as his wife Constanza: a little common, earthily sensible, defiantly devoted. All three performances shine; around them a perfectly judged court swirls and hisses, Simon Janes particularly funny as the philistine Emperor.

 

It is, altogether, a beautiful start for the recreated Festival theatre: Simon Higlett’s open design expresses with palatial simplicity both Mozart’s glittering splendour and Salieri’s imprisoning darkness: six glittering chandeliers rise and fall before tall dim windows, and the opening moment is a thing of masked, hissing figures: “Ssss…sssalieri…asssasssin…” around the bitter old man’s hooded chair. When Everett rises and conjures up the witnesses of history – us, curving around him in the great arena – the house lights go up . And we are, in the timeless theatrical miracle, involved.

 

box office cft.org.uk 01243 781312 to 2 August
Sponsored by Harwoods Group and Oldham Seals Group
Rating : four    4 Meece Rating

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MEDEA – National Theatre, SE1

IN WHICH GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI FINDS MUCH TO ENJOY, AND ONLY A LITTLE TO MOAN ABOUT

It is always exciting to have a new Medea, possibly the most controversial of all Euripides’ tragedies, documenting a crime still felt to be fundamentally shocking and unnatural: and Ben Power has given us a tense, profound and horrifying Medea which recalls Euripides’ original closely in mood and pace. The simple clarity of Power’s text brings the play easily to new audiences, and while it doesn’t quite have the acid brilliance of Euripides’ wordplay, Power still treats us to occasional moments of real poetry (childbirth is “the unknown agonies where life and death dance together”). Meanwhile, Carrie Cracknell’s fast, dynamic production gives us an urgent sense of the inexorability of Medea’s terrible outcome. Designed by Tom Scutt, the split-level set subtly recalls a classical temple in shape, with Jason’s second wedding going on upstairs in an appropriately-fragile-looking glass box (complete with cake, flowers and white piano), while below in Medea’s house the peeling walls, eerie garden and sparse furniture speak of opulence run dry. Scutt’s elegant costumes fit this changing mood: the Chorus are prim bridesmaids one moment, dark horrors the next,  partly thanks to inspired lighting by Lucy Carter.

Helen McCrory is luminous and magnetic as Medea, showing us all her seductive qualities and sensitively unravelling her descent into murder in a powerfully intelligent, vibrant performance. We can see and feel the deftness with which Medea manipulates all the men (and women) around her: the warmth with which she meets her saviour-to-be, Aegeus (the brilliant Dominic Rowan), whose fatal mention of childlessness gives Medea the idea for Jason’s ultimate punishment, gives real verve and significance to a scene which could otherwise have felt merely convenient. Danny Sapani is an appropriately smug, weak and self-justifying Jason, turning up to drink Medea’s whisky and patronisingly flourish his chequebook at the problem: Sapani carefully exposes Jason’s drastic underestimation of Medea, even managing to gain our sympathy at times. The bitter antipathy of a modern divorce in progress bristles nicely between them, with all its petty vindictiveness and messy emotional history sharply delineated.

Lucy Guerin’s choreography is assured, with a great deal of disciplined twitching and jerking: while superbly executed, this danse macabre often distracts our eye from the protagonists, and only truly fits the sentiment of the fifth ode (just before the children are killed). The intention behind their movements is that the Chorus evoke Medea’s state of mind: the effect is that the Chorus are drained of personality in order to become ciphers for Medea’s emotion. Given the ferocious psychological power of McCrory’s Medea, we don’t need the Chorus to gild this lily: much of Euripides’ human interest in the Chorus’ own predicament, as stateless refugees who will be victims of whatever Medea decides, is consequently lost, though their dancing and singing are immaculate. The music, by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, is often beautiful and wonderfully atmospheric, but tends to overflow at times into a cinematic expanse of swelling emotion which can’t honestly fit the compressed, neurotic and psychotic world of Euripides’ masterpiece.

Nevertheless, McCrory’s fiercely brilliant central performance makes Ben Power’s threatening, thought-provoking Medea a must-see.

CHARLOTTE VALORI

At the National Theatre until 4 September: 020 7452 3000

Rating: Four 4 Meece Rating

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