Monthly Archives: October 2016

RAGTIME Charing Cross Theatre, SW1

AMERICA’S STORY, EVERYBODY’S SONG

 

 

America’s twentieth century belongs to all of us, and its events and themes echo round the world: the rise of corporate power, the racial and class struggle towards justice, the tension between peaceful slow reformers and firebrands, mass immigration and assimilation, the birth of the movies , the cult of celebrity. And so does America’s music: from the blues to ragtime and rock.

 
E.L.Doctorow’s 1975 novel imagined a decade from 1902-1912, recklessly involving in its plot real historical figures and events – Harry Houdini’s rise in showbiz, Henry Ford and his Model T Ford, musichall stars. The last London revival went a bit portentously heavy – in design terms – on modern American politics, Obama, the moon landing, fast food, all that. Now, with the sure hand and vigorous ensemble work which director Thom Southerland brought to his successful TITANIC, the little Charing Cross Theatre presents it anew in a elegantly versatile design by Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher.

 
It’s a head-reeling two and a half hours: one critic felt positively “assaulted” by its almost constant stream of big numbers, and to be honest it wouldn’t have lost anything by trimming. But I plunged, hazy and miserable with a heavy cold , right into its intertwined stories at an enthusiastic matinee: I left with the sort of satisfaction you get when you’ve finished a great epic novel. Which is almost better when like me you haven’t yet read the said novel, but I couldn’t be more pleased to read that the author himself loved what Terence McNally and composer Stephen Flaherty (lyrics, Lynn Ahrens) did to his story.

 

 
And he’’d be pleased too with Southerland and his spirited cast: free-moving, at one point surrounding us, leaping on and off pianos with unlikely ease. Especially, as she lies at the novel’s heart, he should be glad of Anita Louise Combe as Mother: her voice is spectacular, and so is Ako Mitchell as the wronged Coalhouse: darkly magnificent, dangerous and fine. And in this pocket theatre, by the way, all the seats are very good indeed…

 

box office (0)20 7400 1234 to 20 Dec

rating four   4 Meece Rating

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GLOBE GREATS REMEMBERED

This is an unusual post, not about any current production,  and far too long.   And the latest current reviews are available below, AMADEUS at the top and well worth it.    But there has been  controversy over the departure of Emma Rice from Shakespeare’s Globe,  and much  disproportionate nonsense being talked about how it is a “Brexit” and a victory for a stuffy, boring old-guard, coldly commercial tourist Shakespeare over the vibrant new Emma Rice approach.    And it just isn’t true.  Over the last fifteen years and more I have had extraordinary, magical, and wholly involving evenings at the Globe,  gainsaying any ridiculous idea that there was no “involvement” with groundlings or innovative approaches.   So I am just republishing here a collection of my favourite Globe reviews.

Here they are.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING  – dir. Jeremy Herrin
David Tennant had better watch his back: for a time it seemed extreme bad luck for the poor Globe that the Dr Who stars – Tennant and Tate – are going to open within days up West with this same play. Could there really be room for two Ados in London? Two sets of quibbling, chop-logic Shakespearian lovers?
But the proof’s in the players: and late on a damp and chilly night the groundlings erupted and spontaneous cheers and whistles echoed round the balconies when this Benedick finally took Beatrice in his arms. The pair – not TV-famous but thoroughly foxy, seasoned stage actors – absolutely triumph, in one of the trickiest romances in the canon. ////
Charles Edwards, lately a glorious Aguecheek in Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night – is an impertinently quiffed city-boy of a Benedick, matched by Eve Best as a striding, larky, impatient bluestocking Beatrice. And judging by the reaction, they are absolutely what is wanted by the “Friends” and Bridget Jones generation. They quarrel briskly, confide in the groundlings, dart humiliatingly behind laundry or (in his case) get trapped up an orange-tree and suffer a perilous descent by rope. Better than that, they are subtle enough to evoke beautifully the way that the couple’s attraction is hampered both by lack of self-knowledge and by an overdeveloped sense of the absurdity of romantic love. It takes adversity – the near-tragedy of her cousin Hero’s betrayal and shaming – to shake both into the solid value of love and loyalty. They give us that progress with wit and honesty. When Edwards says “I do love nothing in the world as well as you – is that not strange?” his sudden straightness tugs the heart, as it should.////
It is not, for all its fame, an easy play. Tynan called it an over-valued piece which should have “gurgled down the plughole of history”. Maybe it was a series of mannered proscenium productions that jaded him: certainly the populist freedom of the Globe gives it new life. It falls sharply into two halves: light comedy at first, real tragic echoes later when Don John’s plan shames the bride Hero at the altar. On this light framework Shakespeare hangs recurring preoccupations: jealousy, credulity, moral horror, betrayal, friendship turned to feuding. Hero’s “death” and resurrection – accompanied by a chilling harmonized dirge – is followed by a strange, romping masked tormenting of Claudio as the trick is revealed, and it jerks us from fright to laughter, just as it should. ////
The whole is set behind some fishponds in which Beatrice paddles barefoot at the start, a nice symptom of her reckless informality, and directed with plenty of life by Jeremy Herrin. I could wish for a firm hand to cut down the showoff tics of Paul Hunter’s Dogberry – for God’s sake, surely the malapropisms are enough – but Adrian Hood’s vast lugubrious Verges is very funny, and David Nellist is a memorably daft and dignified Constable Seacoal, in a moustache I very much hope is not his own.

HENRY IV PARTS I & 2    dir. Dominic Dromgoole
Butts of sack and blaring sackbuts, fluttering pennants, a glimpsed panto cow, a pack of mummers in the yard signifying the folk-origins of theatre with foam-rubber phalluses: very Globe. But beyond the flummery, Dominic Dromgoole offers an impassioned take on the story of a troubled usurper, a rebel age, a dissolute prince and his Falstaff. Together or separately, these productions do justice to the great and ironic spirit which dared build two epic military-history plays around a tubby boozer and a tavern.////
Jamie Parker’s Hal is not unrelated to his role in The History Boys, though posher: emerging trouserless through a trapdoor with a trollop, this is every Etonian blood who sows his wild oats, but knows really that he will be a Guards officer and marry a good girl with an alice-band. His capacity to turn up his nose at his mates is evident even at his wildest in Part I. Parker rolls about, plays the tin whistle, spars with Falstaff and the ruby-nosed Bardolph (Paul Rider, like all the clowns a sharp comedian). Yet even in Part I Hal prefigures his inevitable reform; and in Part 2 his seriousness is no surprise when he accepts the hollow crown and loftily forgives those who used to arrest him. ////
Falstaff is the marvel, though. Roger Allam has a rare convincing confidence in the stout knight’s wit (caught by a vicious downpour, he digressed momentarily into Lear’s ‘blow winds, and crack your cheeks” for an extra cheer from the sodden groundlings). But there’s no empty mugging or self-indulgence. He catches every nuance: Sir John is a boozer and a thief, but with edges of depressive self-disgust which make his final crushing rejection in Part 2 unbearable. He is a knight amid lowlifes, who thinks that he could “purge, and live cleanly as a nobleman”. His battle cowardice springs from having more imagination than the hot young bloods. When he asks whether honour “can take away the grief of a wound?” Allam’s voice drops in real horror. Disgraceful, beguiling, human: a Falstaff to treasure.////
The second play gives us more women, notably a bravely disgusting Doll Tearsheet (Jade Williams) and broad comedy played at length – William Gaunt’s falsetto Shallow quavers for England. It also gives Oliver Cotton as Henry IV a moving deathbed. But Falstaff – overreaching, misjudging, spiralling out of sense and self-control to gather his lurching crew and waylay the icy young king in public – ah, that’s the tragedy that brings the tears.

ALLS WELL THAT ENDS WELL    dir. John Dove
In this play the end justifies the means: deceit is the right thing to do. It is never traditionally a favourite, though: for all the comic potential (which director John Dove has richly mined) the story feels morally, medievally, odd. Low-born Helena adores her mistress’ son Bertram,; on curing the King of France’s illness and being given her idol as a prize , he refuses to consummate the union but heads off to war and to seduce a local virgin. Helena cuts a deal with his victim, replaces her in the dark bedroom and proves it at court with significant rings. Bertram, confronted with the evidence, accepts her.
Defined often as a “problem play” , it certainly offers some, quite apart from the unusually tricky text . How do you make Bertram convincing in his U-turn, and attractive enough to deserve Helena? But mainly it is – like Merry Wives – a tale in which the women win. They triumph through cunning, virtue, and a striding spirit which embraces disguise, cross-country travel, defiance and bedroom swops.////
The younger women – Ellie Piercy’s skinny, determined Helena and Naomi Cranston’s Diane – drive the action , but at its core is an older one: the Countess of Roussillon, described by Shaw as “the most beautiful old woman’s part ever written”. Janie Dee is not old, but a Countess with a soldier son need only be forty, and there is always in Dee’s appeal something regal and maternal: in sweeping velvet she runs her court with briskly playful authority, and when her young go amiss her anxiety and grief really touch your heart.

The men contribute fine laddish play in their fancy-dress soldiering (this is the kind of war you conduct in a white satin cloak) . James Garnon as the pompous, petulant proto-Falstaff Parolles inhabits his extreme costumes with glee, and his final hoodwinking and baiting is wonderfully done. Other grand comedy moments belong to Michael Bertenshaw’s courtier Lafeu, and no opportunity for a lark with the groundlings is missed.

As for Bertram’s motivation, it is resolved by Sam Crane playing him as a flop-haired public schoolboy, miffed at being married off by the King. He looks so Etonian that it is as if a fledgling George Osborne had been summarily ordered by Tory party headquarters to marry Carol Thatcher. His reconciliation is sweet, too: he sinks to his knees in relief that the affronted King (Sam Cox) isnt’ going to top him. It’s all taken speedily and for fun; and it is.

DOCTOR FAUSTUS   dir. Matthew Dunster
Just as Faustus gave Mephistopheles the contract signed in blood, a bird flew beneath the canopy with an agitated swoop and flutter like an escaping soul. The Globe, pledged more than any theatre to the earthy uncontrollable reality of life – rain, helicopters, pigeons – deserves these moments just as it deserves its tolerant cheerful groundlings determined to have a good night out for a fiver.////
They, in return, are owed a bit of Renaissance spectacle: giant furry stilt-walking demons with goat-skull heads, skeletal puppet dragons with flapping wings for Faustus and his devil mate to ride on. And there must be conjuring and clowning, and ideally someone should be drenched (take a bow, Nigel Cooke as the horse-courser, doubling as both the Pope and Lucifer). Compulsory too is trapdoor action: the seven deadly sins emerge from one (Michael Camp very acrobatic as Covetousness) and get tipped down another. Jonathan Cullen as Gluttony in a fat-suit bravely does it head first, before nipping off to be covered in blood and scars as Bruno. Sixteen cast play forty-five parts, with exuberant costume changes.////
I list the larky effects for contrast, because in essence Matthew Dunster’s production is classically straightforward, respectful of Marlowe’s text and theology. Paul Hilton as Faustus and Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles are elegant and intelligent verse speakers: Hilton gives the learned doctor a sneering donnish arrogance from the start, which makes credible the central irony of the play – that Faustus, given supernatural power and knowledge , fritters it away on japes and excursions and loses his soul for nothing. Darvill – part bored estate-agent, part resentful lifer – discards the benign persona beloved of his Dr Who fans (he’s Rory), to shoot out occasional flashes of diabolic rage from a carapace of ironclad self-control.////
Marlowe steers closer to miracle plays and mummers than Shakespeare ever did, so there are brawls between Faustus’ good and bad angels, and an oddly choreographed chorus of black-clad scholars in dark glasses like a mafia ballet . One gang of spirits turns up mystifyingly dressed for a century later, as if they had lost their way to School for Scandal and fallen in some whitewash. But none of the staging – effective and otherwise – distracts entirely from the central horror of Faustus’ decline. His cries of terror echo in the growing darkness, and the final vision of hell – chaotic tormentors brandishing skeletal puppet victims – is as alarming as it should be. In the 1630s, legend says, real devils materialized during a performance, causing the lead actor Alleyn to turn to charitable works and found Dulwich College. The music, by the way, is terrific: Genevieve Wilkins leads a band aloft wearing sinister beaked bird masks.

MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR Shakespeare’s Globe SE1    dir. Christopher Luscombe
There’s a loving warmth about the Globe on a good evening, for all the draught and drizzle. Nobody wants to go home: not the groundlings footsore in the pit, nor we perched on high hard benches. As Christopher Luscombe’s entrancingly funny, sweet-hearted production ends there is a communal sense that if more clapping and whooping can draw the players back and coax another ironic bow from Falstaff, it’s worth trying.////
This is a revival of the 1998 production , with the same principals and Nigel Hess’ merry, delicate musical score, back for a month before touring the indoor theatres of US and UK. It looks beautiful: the unfussy set evokes tavern, home and forest, and the costumes balance elegance with hilarity. William Belchambers’ outfit as Slender – virulent green tights, a hyper-ruff and an orange mini-cloak – confirms him as a hopeless nelly even before his first flinch and mince. Falstaff’s purple wooing-tights are a model of artful exaggeration. Yet sometimes the scene takes on a Breughel aspect, and the final outbreak of ghoul and fairy disguises has a wild, primitive straw-mask forest savagery: the other side of old England.////
A witty programme-note draws parallels with Fawlty Towers (funny foreigners, misunderstanding, vanity, hampers) and the verbal and physical comedy is sharp. Philip Bird goes for broke as Dr Caius the Frenchman, mangling pronunciations like a dainty Clouseau, and there is Fawltyesque outrage from the jealous Page (Michael Garner), disguised in a Judy Finnegan wig . When he rummages the suspect laundry-hamper into a frenzied fountain of Elizabethan underwear, there is a real ooh-matron moment with a corset; yet this is a comedic Othello, and moments of real rage give him an edge. Christopher Benjamin in a Santa beard handles Falstaff’s florid eloquence beautifully and keeps the right side of grossness (it is possible to dislike a Falstaff, but not this one). And at the heart of it all the scheming, vigorously virtuous wives – Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward – lark in perfect rapport.////
The surprise, though, was how touched I was by the dull young lovers, Anne and Fenton,singing a roundelay in the pretty garden. It counterpointed the middle-aged absurdities: I had forgotten that this comedy is a cheerful affirmation of unpretentious bourgeois love-matches. No grand passions, no politics, just gauche new love and mature comfort. And, of course, the more modern moment when Slender, conned into marrying a boy in a ghost-suit, briefly gives him the eye and prefigures the age of civil partnership. They got a cheer, too.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM Shakespeare’s Globe SE1   dir. Dominic Dromgoole

Hippolyta is a captured bride, an Amazon with her longbow. When her husband-to-be orders Hermia to obey her father, this rebel bride takes a moment to sign a blessing on the younger girl’s brow before walking out. As her avatar Titania she is no soft touch either: even after her reconciliation with Oberon she suddenly, shockingly, spits a demand that he explain himself over the dirty trick with the love potion. As Hippolyta again she punctures the King’s dignity by neatly tripping him up with her hunting-bow, adding an innocent ‘Oops!” to Shakespeare’s text. Michelle Terry, fresh from another terrific performance at the Almeida, does her proud.////
Dominic Dromgoole’s production has bare-stage period authenticity but picks up with perceptive skill two key themes of the play: female rebellion and the uneasy primitive quality of the fairies. Their magic isn’t pretty-pretty but earthy, erratic and sly. Oberon wears antlers and tattooed chest, Titania skins and tatters. Puck (Matthew Tennyson) is a skinny adolescent wraith, often out of breath and incompetent, and plainly a catamite of Oberon (John Light), whose agile force-ten sexuality is never far from the surface. I have never seen it made clearer that the reason he wants to help Helena, after quarrelling with his own queen, is that she submissively begs to be her man’s “spaniel”. He likes women that way.////
Without being crude it is erotically charged, the runaway lovers ending up in muddy underwear after the forest chase. Sarah MacRae is a gawky, spirited Helena, Olivia Ross rises from coquetry to fury as Hermia, and their paramours (Joshua Silver and Luke Thompson) are contrastingly Hugh-Grantish floppy-doppy public schoolboys. With these fine tensions running through, and Clare van Kampen’s Renaissance-cum-jazzclub score, it never slackens.////
But Globe nights need to be damn good fun and rouse the groundlings. For this I bow to the best ever Rude Mechanicals. Led by the irresistibly funny Pearce Quigley as Bottom, they rouse cheers every time they clog-dance on with percussive Lancashire energy and steel toecaps. They conclude with a sublimely silly performance of what Quigley calls “Pyramus and thingy”. Snug the Joiner is forever crawling out to hammer the stage back together under the hero’s feet, Thisbe falls off, Wall collapses. A nice touch is that while the enchanted forest and Theseus’ palace were indicated with words and a ragged curtain, the Mechanicals struggle officiously on with a rickety elaborate stage. A sharp joke on those who spend more time on theatre machinery than on plays.

RICHARD III   dir. Tim Carroll

“Would you enforce me to a world of cares?” pleads the hypocrite usurper. A cry of “Yeaaah!” from the London mob: us. We are complicit, a cheering crowd of groundlings and galleries wound up to cry “God save King Richard!”. Maybe we are really cheering the return of Mark Rylance to the theatre whose rumbustious, authentically vigorous tone he set. In the first of two return performances (Twelfth Night follows) his twisted Richard is one to remember.////
It is an original-costume staging, all male: a thing of ruff and puffed pantaloon, cloaks and armour and stylized (but oddly convincing) white-faced Queens gliding around, defiant or frozen with fear (James Garnon is particularly impressive as the Duchess of York ). Rylance himself is caparisoned in a doublet of gold-and-orange stripes like a big affable bee, and limps in with playful bitterness , delivering in the first minute the most outrageously suggestive rendering yet of the words “lascivious playing of a a lute”. He buzzes around the stage, his air satirical verging on clownish (a look assisted by the hairdo) and more amused than otherwise by his proposed career as full-time villain. He indulges in almost Frankie-Howerd asides to the groundlings. The murder of Clarence properly darkens the tone: Tim Carroll, directing, knows how to keep the bare Globe stage moving and how to use the plaintive band of shawm, recorders, sackbuts and the rest to change the atmosphere./////
Rylance plays well against his ally (and final victim), Roger Lloyd Pack as Buckingham, who mirrors his affably vague manner at times but visibly shivers at the outbursts of rage which deface it. THe most terrifying is a silent moment as York, the cheeky Princeling in pink satin, asks to be borne “upon his shoulder”, and rashly touches the hunch. Rylance’s start, though momentary, sends the child scuttling behind a pillar.////
A Richard has to offer hints of what beyond mere ambition could make a man so casually murderous. Rylance makes the most of the character’s famous levity, but when confronted by his mother becomes, for a moment, almost Kevin the teenager (or perhaps the we-need-to-talk-about-Kevin killer). Here is the awkward ugly child who never fitted, the amoral teen who in the face of the grieving mother of the murdered Princes can petulantly grumble “Harp not upon that string!” . It is a beautifully manoeuvred hint, leading on to the ghost-ridden nightmare before Bosworth and the four o’clock cry of “There is no creature loves me!” . Yet even then, he exacts a laugh with “Is there a murderer here? Yes, I”.////
And so at last in armour, clanking and struggling like a great wounded beetle, he dies with energy, as his ghost victims parry every desperate swipe. Then it’s over, and the great Rylance is once again dancing his bow on the wide Globe stage, to cheers.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW   dir. Toby Frow
Maybe it’s revenge for the perceived rise of the Boardroom Ballbreaker, but the rough-love taming of Katherina, shuddered aside in peak feminist years, is newly popular. At the RSC Lucy Bailey set it in a giant bed, playing up the eroticism and giving it a twist by making the “curst, froward” unmarriageable girl a drunk, so that Petruchio’s shock treatment looked like therapeutic intervention. And Kiss me Kate, now rocking Chichester, always did duck clear of Shakespeare’s more graphic humiliations of the girl. Otherwise, a favoured route is to emphasise that it is framed as a jape played on a drunken tramp by toffs, mischievously pretending that this is how the gentry carry on.////
But without a shred of PC apology, and only a cursory nod to the tramp (he merrily pees on the groundlings at the start) , the Globe romps through one of the sunniest, funniest of evening: a cheeky, clever continuous delight. Toby Frow directs with comic precision which enlivens even the more obscure clown-chat, leaves absolutely no entendre un-doubled and adds his own visual jokes : every time Petruchio speaks of his father’s death his servant Grumio (Michael Bertenshaw) accidentally- on-purpose kicks a bucket. Shouldn’t be funny, but is: it’s all in the timing: kick-clang-glare-oops! Bertenshaw is splendid: they all are, adding lovely grace-notes of absurdity to the complex subplots: the unravelling of the Lucentio-Tranio-Vincentio pretence is brilliant. And Sarah MacRae’s Bianca, often a dull part, displays a passive- aggressive girlish slyness which nicely contrasts with her sister’s honest if intemperate frustration.////
But it can’t work unless the leads convince: and they do. Samantha Spiro is a Kate whose opening line is “Raaaarrrrrrr!” and whose physical capacity both to inflict and accept broad comic violence is startling. Yet she has dignity , a sparking, frustrated intelligence even at her most downtrodden, and hints early enough that Simon Paisley Day’s soldierly virile Petruchio is more to her taste than the popinjays seeking her sister. When she finally agrees that OK dear, the sun IS the moon if you say so, it is with an air of having learnt not submission, but the useful art of humouring a temporarily unreasonable man. When she wins the wife-calling game for him she is well in on the joke. And her final appeal, directed out to all of us, to eschew sour peevish behaviour is touchingly convincing.////
But perhaps – bah humbug, beshrew it! that was just the magical Globe dusk, the rising moon and swaying flickering candelabras. We may all be back in female command-mode by morning.

THE TEMPEST    dir. JEremy Herrin
Rocks , marbled to match the columns, litter the broad plank stage. Above a sea of groundlings sailors stagger and haul and noblemen panic, Alonso’s crown rolling by as the Bo’sun cries “What cares these roarers for the name of King?”. A model ship is tossed aloft and sinks in the crowd; high overhead Prospero watches, and on the stage’s shore a ragged Miranda cries in pity. ////
The Globe begins its season at its simple best, demanding of us the same imagination that Shakespeare asked under a younger sky. Jeremy Herrin’s production is sly in humour, immense in compassion and streaked with darkness, with a great actor at its heart. Roger Allam is Prospero: his Falstaff here won an Olivier, and once again he demonstrates that he is one of our finest Shakespearians. Even the most fleeting word is given an intelligent precision, rising from deep feeling. When he sharply asks about the castaways “Are they,Ariel, safe?” he throws a nervous glance at the daughter he has put into a magic sleep. Moments ago he blandly assured her they were. But this Prospero is fallible, a wronged man who struggled to master natural magic but remains wary of the powers he released.////
His daughter is too much to him after lonely years; his strictness to Ferdinand reflects (with considerable humour) a fatherly terror of losing her to marriage, even though he engineered it. And as TV viewers well know, Allam does middle-aged exasperation better than anyone. His Prospero is a fresh creation but pleasingly related to the heavyset, irritable politicians and policemen we know him for.////
If Allam finds a modern reality in the old enchanter, his Miranda matches it well. A surprise but clever choice, the ebullient Irish singer Jessie Buckley (runner-up in the TV “I’d do Anything”) does not sing but gives Miranda a wild-haired fresh simplicity, nicely offsetting Joshua James’ effete Ferdinand. When she solicitously takes the heavy logs off him, it is plain that Prince Wimp has never met a tomboy before. Which is funny. Indeed (despite some good Geordie clowning from Trevor Fox in a comedy codpiece) the best humour lies in that family interaction.////
The deep strange pathos of the play is well served by Stephen Warbeck’s eerie music (from sax to didgeridoo), by Colin Morgan as a remarkable, pallid adolescent Ariel and by James Garnon’s superb Caliban: one ethereal and parkour-acrobatic, the other crouching, a thing of darkness marbled like the rocks he crawls from. When Allam finally takes the twisted creature’s hand in forgiveness, there’s a jolt of unexpected pity. Wonderful.
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA   dir. Jonathan Munby
Eve Best is an irresistible Cleopatra for today: no slinky seductive exoticism but a fresh, joyful, larky sensuality as well-expressed in warlike cloak and breeches as in a nightgown, royal robes or – at one stage – just a sheet as she searches for an Antony who has deserted her bed when – she snorts with irritation – “A Roman thought hath struck him”. A fierily physical performer, Best gives full rein to the Queen’s hysterical jealous rages (never has a messenger been so comprehensively beaten up by a woman) but defuses even her greatest griefs and rages with self-aware jokes right to the edge of death. Even when rudely silencing the rather beautifully melodious singing eunuch (Obioma Ugoala) she mocks her own mood. Touching, too, is the relationship with her handmaids Charmian and Iris: easy, affectionate, joshing. Charmian’s “Good madam, keep yourself within yourself!” evokes a habitual, unrebuked intimacy.
Indeed the whole of the Egyptian court, fanned with hanging carpets in the sparsely set, free-moving visual language of the Globe’s great stage, looks considerably more fun than the Roman senate. Here the rest of the triumvirate – an unhappy sober-suited coalition – discuss Pompey’s maritime threat and Mediterranean power politics. For in order for Shakespeare’s play to work well, we must believe that Antony is torn between his destiny as soldier and statesman and a mid-life love affair which made him willing to “give a kingdom for a mirth”. We have to see how a tough man’s man, whose campaigning stamina and hardships were legendary, could be caught by the “serpent of old Nile” and make disastrous military decisions. And how all the same his other nature could draw him back to embrace Roman duty and let Cleopatra down by marrying Caesar’s “holy, cold and still” sister.
Some Antonys fail at this, either playing too much the lover, or trying for the kind of preternatural , soaring, godlike nobility described in Cleopatra’s extraordinary late encomium in the Monument scene. Clive Wood does not fail: he creates a chunky, passionate, troubled man whose sweetness is always at war with a habit of ruthlessness. Against him is set Jolyon Coy’s Octavius Caesar: prim, puritanical, the parting of his schoolboy haircut straight, afflicted by no visible affections except for his sister. When Antony returns to Rome, his bright purple jacket contrasts nicely with Caesar’s sober-suited court.
So the emotional line of this broad tragedy – pretty well untrimmed at three hours – hangs finely on those three performances, and is studded with other treats. Phil Daniels’ Enobarbus – entrusted with some of the most famous poetic lines – will not be everyone’s favourite but I like the way he speaks them , without pretension, as if he had just made them up. The choreographed dancing exuberance of the Egyptians set against the stamping march of Rome underlines the difference even when both share the stage. When war breaks out in earnest a great tattered map of the Mediterranean countries falls from above and men with banners whirl aloft around one another on ropes.

The great golden-winged tragedy unfolds in the monument ,the asp strikes: silence and applause from thatch to groundlings confirm that necessary and ancient sense that we have been through something big, together.

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AMADEUS Olivier, SE1

ONE OF THE GREAT NIGHTS
The old man’s eye is unforgiving, his squat wrecked strength of will cows the vast room as he invokes us – “ghosts of the future” – to hear his confession. “You must understand me. Not forgive: understand”.  Antonio Salieri, opening and closing a stormy three hour memory-play, must persuade posterity that he killed the upstart genius Mozart, and thus share a twisted immortality. The decade’s destruction of his soul is brought before us by Lucian Msamati in the performance of a lifetime (even for him). He evokes all the great  immortal yearnings that his rival’s music brings, all the rage of virtuous mediocrity unrewarded, all the agony having your soul moved by the God-given, effortless talent of “an obscene child!” who is the great artist. Msamati  seethes, struts, writhes and falls like Satan himself, never loosening his grip on the pain . Or on us.

 
Set against his enraged solidity is the skipping preposterous figure of Mozart himself: the slight, exuberantly silly prodigy kept childish and dependent by his father:  the frolicking, foul-mouthed pest who –  without laying down his billiard cue or his latest mistress  – can conjure miracles of grace and spirituality, holding whole operas complete in his head to scribble on hands-and-knees on top of the nearest fortepiano. It is a famously daunting part, because he must be both appalling enough to repel us a bit yet – in the final decline Salieri manages for him – aware like a desperate child of the greatness and eternity of his gift. Adam Gillen goes at it with unsettling energy: think Fotherington-Thomas on benzedrine doing a Kenny Everett impression with a bad dose of Tourettes. In the second half her draws out with particular finesse the vulnerabilityo of the man-child; his final scene with Salieri is almost unbearably painful, as the great Requiem throbs around us.

 

 

It was time Rufus Norris’ tenure at the national saw one of those landmark, memorable five.star opening nights: two thirds of the audience on their feet calling back a huge ensemble (its never all, NT regulars tend to think standing ovations are common).  Now we have that great moment. Peter Shaffer’s extraordinary imagining about great art and great envy in the 18c Austrian court has its first revival to be staged its original home, and under director Michael Longhurst, designer Chloe Lamford and (not least)  Imogen Knight’s movement direction,  the play gets everything it needs for perfection and awe.  It is stupendous. Some revivals skimp on the moments of music, for few can afford an onstage orchestra and singers , and if you do it is hard to use them in abruptly cut-off fragments which serve Salieri’s furious, overwhelmed glances at sheet music; or to create great swelling chorales and full-dress chunks of opera. almost as asides.

 
But here, on the Olivier’s vast stage, we have it all. And each of the envious Kapellmeister’s pained, jealous descriptions of a high lone oboe or a cascade of crunching harmonies is there, before us, live, astonishing still.  The Southbank sinfonia clamber, reform, sink into a pit or, in one terrifying moment, on a stepped platform slide triumphantly downstage  towards the sobbing, retching Salieri, their celestial harmonies and glowing brass and varnish nearly running him off the edge. The soloists – especially Fleur de Bray – are marvels, the chorales stirring, the moments of ornate 18c absurdity and carnival make your eyes pop. And the orchestra becomes a Greek chorus at times, emitting alarming musical pulses and discords or moving in their black suits like a threatening sea.

 
Nothing jars, except that the whole theme is jarring: asking questions of all who try to create and know far they -we – fall short. Tom Edden is very funny as the crisp philistine Emperor Joseph II, as are Geoffrey Beevers, Alexandra Mathie and Hugh Sachs as his courtiers; Karla Crome earthily touching and real as Mozart’s longsuffering wife, particularly fine in the seduction scene. It’s wonderful. That the author died this year before he could see this production is painful to think.

 

 

box office box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
On screens nationwide 2 February 2017
Sponsor: Travelex, 14th season!
Rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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A PACIFIST’S GUIDE TO THE WAR ON CANCER Dorfman, SE1

TUMOURS, RUMOURS,  A BIT OF HUMOUR

 

The cancer thing finished off another old friend at the weekend, the call coming between the official press night and my getting to Bryony Kimmings’ show. Even before that, having lost a brother this summer and several friends beforehand , I was among those who flinched at the title and was ready to question the auteur’s voice-of-God announcement that we don’t talk enough about cancer: another thirty years’ attrition, girl, and you’ll know different. But I suspect this play’s real strength is in addressing a millennial generation and – importantly – one more at home with cabaret and fringe performance than traditional theatre. Fair enough.

 

 
It as divided critics sharply, the grumpier reviews provoking defiant tweets from the creator “I think I just care about other things to lots of people in this theatre lark”…”I am feeling protective of the space we are trying to create… The alternative stories we are trying to tell. The truth”. and tellingly, “reviewers have little time for performance art”. Oh come on! We’re all fringe-hardened, quite at home being pushed through car-tyres in the dark or forced to role-play as talking cucumbers. There’s a place for kicking down the fourth wall . And this is a partnership with Complicité, and we trust that.

 
With some lovely bluesy and harmonic songs by Tom Parkinson (lyrics by Kimmings), it follows the first day of an unwilling pilgrim in the “Kingdom of the Sick”: a hospital set with seven baffling exits, and a nicely diverse dozen playing as patients at various stages, some occasionally nipping into bulgy colourful costumes as cancer cells (the young Imperial medic next to me said they are pleasingly accurate). Sometimes huge inflatable cells come out of the walls in fantasy dread sequences, hemming them in; sometimes the ensemble realistically wait on plastic chairs, or nightmarishly jerk and stamp like zombies. Sometimes they express to our heroine – Amanda Hadingue as Emma – recognizable gripes. Like ripping up the hospice leaflets in denial, or having friends putting on the soupy “cancer face”, enjoy the drama too much or offer quack cures. In the most convincing song (to my mind) they all just furiously sing a hissing chorus of “Fuck thissss! Fuck thissss!”.

 

 
A problem , though, is that (because of her own experience with a sick baby, which Kimmings recounts in voiceover at the end) she makes the main protagonist not a patient but a single mother, apparently without friends, bringing her infant for cancer treatment. Now a new mother’s agonies are specific, violent and unique: not the experience of a diagnosed adult. And this, I am afraid, unbalances the piece. It’s not unconvincing – the second half opens with five minutes of a roaring, throbbing, spotlit stillness of waiting, and a crazed ritual of maternal grief. But it oddly dilutes the more common cancer experience, the quieter truth we all get to know as hardened supporters and funeralgoers. Because it is so much a young person’s piece, my generation may miss what we see more of: the black humour, the stoicism, the focused desire to understand the science, the lassitude, the quiet talk of the past with old friends.

 

 
The tone moves from furious zombie energy to nursery platitudes: let me hastily say I have nothing against that, sometimes a warm-milk platitude is just what an invalid needs: a jingle like the one the cast sing at the end after revealing that they are representing research subjects whose recorded voices come out of the air: “Fingers crossed! Make a wish! For myself! And those I miss!”. The audience was not entirely on-side when asked to speak the name of someone with cancer they love or lost, and a survivor invited onstage to express her hopes for the NHS etc. was represented by a gallant stage-manager reading her message.
That bit really annoyed some critics, but in the general oddity of the piece as a whole, I was fine with it. The conclusion may be  soupy, but it is heartfelt. For some, it may prove important.

 
box office box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 29 Nov
rating three

3 Meece Rating

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A MAN OF GOOD HOPE Young Vic, SE1

AN AFRICAN ODYSSEY

 
Not all refugees are in Calais or aiming for here. This enthralling piece from Mark Dornford-May’s Isango Ensemble of Cape Town tells another story, an African epic beating and yearning with the voice of a great continent. Musically magnificent, poignant and joyful and vigorous, it is based on Jonny Steinberg’s book, the true story of Asad Abdullahi al-Yusuf, a stateless Somali refugee of a proud tribe – “thirty-five generations!” – cast wandering across the troubled bosom of Africa.

 

 

Steinberg met him in the Blikkersdorp township five years ago, hustling, running errands, surviving in a shack with his family. He learned the story and step by step we watch the unfolding of a life. First the modern Asad, Ayanda Tikolo, is seen: nervy, on alert for attacks, nobly sad-faced. Our awareness of that haunts all his younger selves, as they dance and travel past us. There’s the eight-year-old Asad (an irresistible small child performer , Siposethu Juta or Phielo Makitle) who saw his mother shot in the civil war in 1991, escaped to Kenya to a UN refugee camp, learned scraps of English. He finds brief protection from an adult woman cousin (Pauline Malefane) but when she is shot must nurse her, forced to clean her intimately even through her periods “I had no choice” and keep her alive.

 

 

Chased on alone to Ethiopia the boy grows up – Zoleka Mpotsha then Luvo Tamba take on the role in this skilled, relaxed, freewheelingly disciplined barefoot ensemble. Asad finds casual work, marries, and travels to the promised land of wealthy South Africa. Where, as an asylum-seeking migrant “stealing our jobs, bringing crime”, he meets hostility and violence from a black community, itself embittered by the souring of the Rainbow Nation promise.

 

 
It could be grim: and there are moments almost unbearably moving, especially in the deep silence after the child’s mother is shot, broken by the chirping of crickets and then a high wailing note from the boy, taken up in deep harmony , almost reminiscent of a Byrd lament, by the rest: hairs rise on your neck, as soul of Africa keens for its losses. The music by Mandisi Dyantyis and Pauline Malefane, on six huge marimbas and any number of percussion junk, is complex, sophisticated and hugely operatic. And there is a dignity in Asad, and his sense of tribe and culture, which underpins the whole story. Asked for his name, from childhood he sings his tribe’s tune of identity, and through the tale he finds succour in the diaspora of his kin.

 

 

But it is unsentimental and tough-minded about this too: at one key point a relative refuses the child help, being only by-marriage; in South Africa the hostility of a people disillusioned and degraded by generations of apartheid weighs heavy on the struggling Somali small-tradesmen. In a strange moment of pride Asad says he will live in the suburbs; the South Africans mock him, only white people live there; and he protests that he is not black…his lineage is long and noble, that “blackness’ means something different to him. But after losing his first wife and son because she cannot stand the prejudice, he is the one who finally rejects tribalism by marrying a woman of outcast, ‘unclean’ tribe. The theme of clannishness and culture which can be either pride and protection or imprisoning prejudice is subtle and strong and honest. It echoes with many things, from ISIS to UKIP and raises the piece above the mere glory and uplift of music and dance, to a serious moral significance.

 

 
The final moments reflect Steinberg’s tale of Asad’s final remarks. He gets his American asylum papers at last, ruefully remembering how as a little child he dreamed that “America is always safe, there are no guns, everyone is rich”, and faces another future as a migrant there. But he won’t read the book. Too many lost loved ones, too many rejections. “The story is not for him” Steinberg writes. It’s not therapy for a man who survived and grew noble without it. It’s for the rest of us to learn from. Grave, exhilarating, honest, unmissable.

 
box office 020 7922 2922. to 12 Nov
rating: five   5 Meece Rating

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THE RED BARN Lyttelton SE1

NOT A BARNSTORMER. NOT THIS TIME..

 

About 65 minutes in, the willowy monotone Mona sighingly asks her lover “Don’t you get tired of your character? I think I do”. So civil is the National Theatre audience that not one of us muttered “Yep! Definitely tired of yours”. Disillusion flowered even though the ever-moaning Mona is Elizabeth Debicki, the Australian caryatid who hypnotized us – visually at least – in The Night Manager.

 

 

That this new play should be a lemon is a serious disappointment. It’s by David Hare; it’s got Debicki’s physical glamour, Mark Strong’s authority as Donald the antihero, designer Bunny Christie making elegant use of the Lyttelton’s sliding ability to frame and reframe significant moments, deafening storm surround-sound and sinister music by Tom Gibbons, and in charge – with many a bang and flash – is Robert Icke. The much-awarded star director rashly gave an interview last week saying how a lot of other people’s theatre is “boring” , so he often leaves at the interval. Ironic that he promptly socks us an underpowered 110-minute gloomfest with no interval at all.

 
Pile all this literary, directorial and performing talent together , in a tale taken from Simenon – the Maigret author, moody master of crime fiction – set it in restlessly glamorous 1959 America, and the result should at least be a bit of classy noir. Even if , with the cast heavily miked and mechanically cinematic frames and cuts, at moments it feels more like cinema. We are put in the mood for a thriller with the blacking-out of shiny exit signs and a warning that there is no readmission because of the tension. And it starts promisingly enough in an impressive Connecticut storm, through which struggle the four principals – Debicki, Strong, Hope Davis as the sweetly saintly Ingrid, and Nigel Whitmey as someone called Ray. They have been to a party and left their car in the blizzard, groping towards Ingrid and Donald’s house. But Ray never gets there.

 

 

We settle in, hoping for shocks and revelations , only mildly disappointed that despite the wind-machine gale from the wings whenever the door opens, nobody does the Morecambe-and-Wise trick of throwing handfuls of fake snow in. There’s a police Lieutenant deploying an unaccountable Pinteresque menace, and a couple of flashbacks of the culpably smart party they left (I think this is a social message about American values, though not sure what). Otherwise we just get a series of gnomic conversations as the group wait in vain for Ray, hear the bad news, and move on several months to an improbably, ludicrously chemistry-free rapport in a chic New York apartment with dangly perspex chairs.
This affair is between Strong’s Donald, struggling to escape his smalltown sports-jacket life and saintly wife, and the impassive, not to say crushingly boring, Mona , dangerously upstaged by her own zebra-print kaftan. Obviously, no good comes of it but my God! it comes very slowly indeed. Chekhov it ain’t, Raymond Chandler it ain’t, though it seems alternately to be aiming at both. Not the actors’ fault, but t for all the fancy soundscapes too many scenes are just fist-gnawingly boring. Let kinder spirits dig for silk-purse words : melancholy, noir, nuanced, delicate, Beckettesque. But honestly, and with real disappointment, I rate it a sow’s ear.

 

 

box office 020 7452 3333 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk to 17 Jan
rating two  (crediting, mousewise, set design and sound..)

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OIL Almeida, N1

CO-CRITIC  LUKE JONES,   VIRTUOUSLY UNLUBRICATED,   DEPLOYS THE DIPSTICK OF JUDGEMENT..

 

What I like about the Almeida is that is that the audience smells as if they’ve been bathing in red wine right up until entering the auditorium. Good stuff, mind. But troubling when the shimmering projections of oilfields, fighter jets and motorways on stage give way to a set lit only by candles.

 

Ella Hickson’s play is essentially two concerns; Oil and family. It’s the question of why we feel we have the right to be warm when it’s cold outside, combined with the turbulence of a mother/daughter relationship. To mine this, Hickson drills into lives across a 200 year period.

 

 

A late 19th Century farm in Devon, appalled and intrigued by an American visitor’s kerosene lamp (“It stinks!”), runs straight through to somewhere at the back-end of this century. A mother and daughter, sat freezing, are appalled and intrigued by a Chinese visitor’s cold-fusion home energy kit. Neat. Along the way we drop into Persia, 70’s Hampstead (let’s give the audience a little bit of what they know) and an unnamed Middle-Eastern war in 2021.

 

In the finger-burning cold of the candle-lit farm, Anne-Marie Duff’s May is the one seduced by the oily man’s demonstration. We’re “bleeding it, sweating it”. She’s ambitious, pregnant. It’s lit something in her, so she runs away. The gripping drama is off. Duff gives us a painfully powerful performance, but is persistently dragged back to trot through quite bland dialogue about energy policy, OPEC, Libya and China. All interesting, but there’s a better show going on, and it’s on the same stage.

 

 

For the first half this drip drip drip of oil is nicely managed. It informs, but doesn’t control. The play gives a mixed picture and isn’t the Green Party political broadcast some of us were expecting. We’re given wittily drawn portraits of destructive government types and idealistic young lovers. Carrie Cracknell’s production lifts the humorously human, but indulges in strange flashing projections of oil fields and fighter jets. Stock imagery doesn’t make a strong message.

 

But running through all this confusion is Duff’s troubled pragmatist; compromise, responsibility and the most expressive face on the English stage. Duff’s performance is like combustion, sparring beautifully with lesser mortals on all sides.

 

So far, so good. When we return from the interval, noticeably refuelled on Rioja, we find a lesser play. Yolanda Kettle, as May’s daughter Amy, is given the glibbest scene about the middle east I have ever heard and her performance arrives in primary colours of whining. The pull of their relationship sours in the surroundings of glib China gags, nonsense futurism and tired nods to the cyclical nature of the play creaking to completion.

If you left at the interval, you’d probably have better conversations in the car home. It had a fiery start, but unfortunately ran out of fuel.

 
Box Office 020 7359 4404  To 26 Nov.

Rating three 3 Meece Rating

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