Monthly Archives: January 2018

JULIUS CAESAR Bridge Theatre, SE1

AVE HYTNER IMPERATOR!    THE BRIDGE AS ARENA

 

 

Before the start, singing along with Eye of the Tiger in the melée and enjoying the red flags, baseball hats and beercans,  we of the 1968 generation felt  quite at home in the standing pit crowd: half gig, half demo, Glasto meets Grosvenor Square, been there before.

 

But, ringed by the balconies of more conventional seats in this new and thrillingly flexible theatre , this is a Caesar for today.   Nicholas Hytner, with pace and humour and a most dramatic immersive design by Bunny Christie, throws it all at Shakespeare’s timeless cautionary tale. Tyrants, beware conspirators: conspirators, beware that out of the chaos you create may rise another tyranny.   Julius Caesar is becoming godlike sole ruler of a newly unstable republic. The assassins who see that this must end are envious and resentful, not all their motives pure: they need to recruit the thoughtful , liberal Brutus. So they do, and in their moment of bloody  achievement the demagogue Mark Antony – in that most artful of speeches to friends, Romans, and countrymen – makes himself the heir, swaying the crowd with sentimental grief for dead Caesar and headshakingly offering that fatal line of  faint praise – “but Brutus is an honourable man… “ . And soon the elected senators are butchered and a new regime rises, whose name is not freedom.

 

Hytner, who over  a decade ago gave us a Henry V for the Iraq war age, has pointed up the current  parallels – populism, fake news, regime changes  – and gleefully  refashioned his new theatre to allow some 200 of us, on foot in the pit, to represent the Roman mob. In the starry hot-ticket  scramble for the first night I decided quietly to buy a 25 quid ticket to eschew seating and get down with the kids (and a few of my own age, some of us visibly creaking at the knees) It was worth it. You’ll have a grand night in a seat, for it is a classy production . Ben Whishaw is a marvellous cerebral, bookish worried liberal Brutus, David Morrissey a striding, masterful Antony,  and every other part is drawn with gorgeous, often funny delicacy. Notably Michelle Fairley’s  earnestly focused Cassius (gender changes work well, after all women do politics too) and Adjoa Andoh  as a smoothly humorous, elegantly camp Casca: a sort of female Roman Peter Mandelson. Not a word falls flat, not a scene drags.

 

 

And wow, the action! Down in the pit you don’t stand still: the crowd moves, has to reshape, change mood from celebration to fear to confusion, cower.  The raised floor proves to be studded with baffling platform sections rising and falling in new conficurations as scenes change,  so that eventually a real sense of national upheaval takes you over. You’re helpless, sometimes thrillingly near the action sometimes jostled far back, glad of the occasional chest-level sill to lean on before it suddenly sinks away and another rises behind you , and unbelievably well-drilled stage management hands and voices get you moving back, sideways, out of the way, quick, here come the soldiers, here comes Caesar, quic.k… And the world is rebuilt round you, sometimes in near darkness.  Promenade performances can be both boring and  hell on the feet, but two hours flashed by in anxious tense  silences, rousing speeches, eavesdropping on conspiracy , fleeing through the smoke of battle.
 

So at last, as I brushed the last of the falling ash from my hair and staggered out past the barbed wire, barricades and ammo  boxes  of noble  Brutus’ final battle,   I felt smugly   sorry for the poor static comfy lumps  in the balconies, glorious though their view no doubt was.  We got to cheer Caesar, crouch in terror at the gunshots,  suddenly find our noses two feet from Morrissey’s  brogues as he cast aside his microphone and spoke from the cunning heart of Antony. I nearly got caught up in the dismemberment of poor Cinna the poet, too   ,As  Henry V  would put it, gentlemen in posh seats up aloft should think themselves  accursed they were not here, to mob with us upon the Ides of March. And travel, delighted and warned, through the urgency and desperation of every era’s upheavals.

 

. Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 15 april Broadcast in cinemas on NT Live on 22 March
rating: five  5 Meece Rating
And here is the rare Stage Management Mouse for the guys who kept us on the move…

Stage Management Mouse resizedSet Design Mouse resizedand a design mouse for Bunny Christie.

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JULIUS CAESAR Bridge Theatre, SE1

AVE HYTNER IMPERATOR!    THE BRIDGE AS ARENA

 

 

Before the start, singing along with Eye of the Tiger in the melée and enjoying the red flags, baseball hats and beercans,  we of the 1968 generation felt  quite at home in the standing pit crowd: half gig, half demo, Glasto meets Grosvenor Square, been there before.

 

But, ringed by the balconies of more conventional seats in this new and thrillingly flexible theatre , this is a Caesar for today.   Nicholas Hytner, with pace and humour and a most dramatic immersive design by Bunny Christie, throws it all at Shakespeare’s timeless cautionary tale. Tyrants, beware conspirators: conspirators, beware that out of the chaos you create may rise another tyranny.   Julius Caesar is becoming godlike sole ruler of a newly unstable republic. The assassins who see that this must end are envious and resentful, not all their motives pure: they need to recruit the thoughtful , liberal Brutus. So they do, and in their moment of bloody  achievement the demagogue Mark Antony – in that most artful of speeches to friends, Romans, and countrymen – makes himself the heir, swaying the crowd with sentimental grief for dead Caesar and headshakingly offering that fatal line of  faint praise – “but Brutus is an honourable man… “ . And soon the elected senators are butchered and a new regime rises, whose name is not freedom.

 

 

Hytner, who over  a decade ago gave us a Henry V for the Iraq war age, has pointed up the current  parallels – populism, fake news, regime changes  – and gleefully  refashioned his new theatre to allow some 400 of us, on foot in the pit, to represent the Roman mob. In the starry hot-ticket  scramble for the first night I decided quietly to buy a 25 quid ticket to eschew seating and get down with the kids (and a few of my own age, some of us visibly creaking at the knees) It was worth it. You’ll have a grand night in a seat, for it is a classy production . Ben Whishaw is a marvellous cerebral, bookish worried liberal Brutus, David Morrissey a striding, masterful Antony,  and every other part is drawn with gorgeous, often funny delicacy. Notably Michelle Fairley’s  earnestly focused Cassius (gender changes work well, after all women do politics too) and Adjoa Andoh  as a smoothly humorous, elegantly camp Casca: a sort of female Roman Peter Mandelson. Not a word falls flat, not a scene drags.

 

 

And wow, the action! Down in the pit you don’t stand still: the crowd moves, has to reshape, change mood from celebration to fear to confusion, cower.  The raised floor proves to be studded with baffling platform sections rising and falling in new conficurations as scenes change,  so that eventually a real sense of national upheaval takes you over. You’re helpless, sometimes thrillingly near the action sometimes jostled far back, glad of the occasional chest-level sill to lean on before it suddenly sinks away and another rises behind you , and unbelievably well-drilled stage management hands and voices get you moving back, sideways, out of the way, quick, here come the soldiers, here comes Caesar, quic.k… And the world is rebuilt round you, sometimes in near darkness.  Promenade performances can be both boring and  hell on the feet, but two hours flashed by in anxious tense  silences, rousing speeches, eavesdropping on conspiracy , fleeing through the smoke of battle.

 

 

So at last, as I brushed the last of the falling ash from my hair and staggered out past the barbed wire, barricades and ammo  boxes  of noble  Brutus’ final battle,   I felt smugly   sorry for the poor static comfy lumps  in the balconies, glorious though their view no doubt was.  We got to cheer Caesar, crouch in terror at the gunshots,  suddenly find our noses two feet from Morrissey’s  brogues as he cast aside his microphone and spoke from the cunning heart of Antony. I nearly got caught up in the dismemberment of poor Cinna the poet, too   ,As  Henry V  would put it, gentlemen in posh seats up aloft should think themselves  accursed they were not here, to mob with us upon the Ides of March. And travel, delighted and warned, through the urgency and desperation of every era’s upheavals.

 

. Box office: 0843-208 1846. to 15 april Broadcast in cinemas on NT Live on 22 March
rating: five  5 Meece Rating
And here is the rare Stage Management Mouse for the guys who kept us on the move…

Stage Management Mouse resizedSet Design Mouse resizedand a design mouse for Bunny Christie.

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MARY STUART Duke of York’s, WC2

TWO QUEENS, TWO FATES

 

Who shall be whom? In Robert Icke’s arresting adaptation of Schiller’s play, the scene opens with a sober-suited group of men watching two women in identical black velvet suits and white shirts, while a coin is spun to see which will be Queen Elizabeth I, which her third-cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and rival for the throne. One is Juliet Stevenson, one Lia Williams. They know no more than we do; they will obey the coin.

 

 

It is more than a gimmick, though you do catch your breath at the audacity and expertise of the actors, each knowing every heartbeat of the other’s part and prepared to play it. It sets the theme which Icke picks out of the play: the fact that both women are trapped. Mary is imprisoned at Fotheringhay, accused and convicted – dubiously – of fomenting Catholic uprisings against Henry VIII’s daughter the Queen. Elizabeth is unwillingly engaged in marital negotiations with the French prince, and tainted by accusations of bastardy after her mother was executed and her father disowned her. She must decide whether to sign the death warrant of a kinswoman, or risk Mary continuing as a martyred focus for revolt and assassination. Around the two women – who only meet once, with electric tension, in the third act of five – there swirl arguing, cajoling, threatening, sometimes treacherous courtiers. Only in the gentle last moments of Mary does the stage fill with women, her ladies returned to her at last.

 

 

On the night I went, Juliet Stevenson was the Protestant Queen, Lia Williams Mary. It felt in their first scenes entirely right: Stevenson a sharp commanding figure and Williams more vulnerable, softer. But those who have seen it both ways round assure me that this is right too: indeed gradually a vulnerability in Elizabeth and bursts of spitting passionate fury in Mary narrow the gap: each can fight and scorn, each can be brought low by doubt and the need for love. And each, spectacularly, is wooed by the sexy, unnervingly convincing Leicester (John Light) whose real loyalties remain a touch obscure. Each too is trusted by the impassioned Mortimer (Rudi Dharmalingam) who is fanatically of the Catholic party.

 

 

It is political dynamite, emotional and cerebral catnip. Icke’s text – his own translation, in loose verse – is rather wonderful, unobtrusively poetic but with the iambic thrust and energy which drives and heightens otherwise straightforward argument and emotion. Only passingly does he seek ‘poetic’ diction: more of it is as straight as Elizabeth’s cry “I don’t like wisdom when it’s smeared with blood!” as she listens to Elliot Levey’ s marvellously smooth Burleigh, the ultimate politician, advocating a quick kill (the phrase “never trust a Cecil” seems to have echoed down centuries since).

 

It is consistently exciting, whether in the court circle or in the cell with Mary ; the set is simple, the curved brick back wall of the Almeida where it began is reproduced with just a revolve enabling several outbreaks of catlike, furious circling and a final coup de theatre with Elizabeth’s transformation into the terrifying portrait of her later years. The evening’s tone throughout is – in the best possible way – on a note of sustained political and fanatical hysteria, rarely and barely suppressed.
So, quite often, is your breath.

 

box office 0844 871 7627 http://www.atgtickets.com to 31 March
rating four  4 Meece Rating

 

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LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN Vaudeville, WC2

A WILDE RIDE WITH A BOLTER

 

 

Beneath the artful fan-shapes of the set, gloriously coloured bustles and ruffles flit between black tailcoats and epigrams ping around the room like flicked rubber-bands. The real delight, though, is in the detail: as the Oscar Wilde season rolls elegantly on it is Kathy Burke’s mischievous, witty direction (and wise pruning of some overlong Wilde persiflage) which brings this tale back to life. There’s a wonderful fleeting portrait gag, a priceless unexpected hereditary snort, once a cheeky glimpse of homoerotic flirtation almost out of sight on the terrace and a cherishable entr’acte music-hall number which Burke has lovingly written for Jennifer Saunders’ matriarchal monster . In which Ami Metcalfe in a maid’s outfit doing percussion offers the most suggestive deployment of a triangle yet seen in the West End.

 

 

It is fun, for all the melodramatic seriousness of the tale, and Wilde’s banked-down fury at the hypocrisy of his time. The lightness of touch keeps a modern audience enchanted, and enables us to suspend mere gawps of absurdity at the Edwardian concepts of female “ruin” (caught visiting a Man!) and the need for a once-fallen woman to claw her way back into the “society” of the frankly idle rich. Tiresomely virtuous young Lady Windermere (Grace Molony) sees everything in black and white and is made suspicious of her husband’s calls on the elegantly cougarish Mrs Erlynne, little suspecting that the lady is in fact the mother she had presumed dead but who was in fact that shocking thing, a bolter. Lord W – a nicely geeky Joshua James – is actually trying to save his wife from this fearful knowledge.

 
But it is Mrs E herself who, at the expense of her own social and economic ambitions, saves the naive young woman from repeating her error and running off with one of WIlde’s identikit, epigrammatic young lordlings. Who are, by the way, in the late night all-men scene, hilarious.

 

Key to the play’s success is of course the fallen woman, and Samantha Spiro is as magnetic as ever: sometimes brittle, a knowing cynic who has dyed her hair and made the best of her disgrace, sometimes defensive, but in the big, desperate scene with her daughter lets it all fall away from her to reveal naked, passionate self-sacrificing honesty. Her plea for the silly girl to go back to her baby silences the theatre. And one perhaps remembers that Wilde had a wife and children, and was to suffer the loss of them.

 

http://www.nimaxtheatres.com to 7 April

RATING   four  4 Meece Rating

 

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BEGINNING Ambassadors, WC2

CLAMBERING TOWARDS LOVE

 

 

You don’t often, in romances, get lines like “Tomato ketchup’s always been my Achilles heel”. Or indeed proper consideration being given to the erotic potential of fish finger sandwiches. David Eldridge’s 100-minute two-hander won plaudits at the National (Luke Jones’ delight recorded here, https://theatrecat.com/tag/beginning/ ) and everyone had positive awe for Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton . But I was curious to see whether the messy, utterly naturalistic intimacy directed by Polly Findlay in the Dorfman would survive transplantation to even this tiniest of West End proscenium
houses.

 

 

It does. In the back stalls under the overhang you certainly lose a few muttered lines, but not many. And the fascination of the real-time unfolding of a relationship holds you, as the tipsy, clumsy, lonely pair navigate the aftermath of Laura’s flat-warming party, cooling and warming (“I love a Scotch eggs!” “So do I!”) as they gradually reveal themselves and, as Danny puts it “clamber towards one another” as new lovers must. Especially new lovers a bit battered by life and failure.

 

Troughton as the Essex divorcé, living with his Mum and his Nan and mourning for his marriage and distant child is remarkably skilled : not least at looking – until the end – a lot less attractive than he actually is, which is great acting. A hopeless lump , you think sometimes, why would this pretty woman want him, even if she is 38 and a bit desperate for a baby? Mitchell in turn displays sometimes a brittle professional-woman sophistication and sometimes a howling, alarming neediness. The sexual politics of the evening are nicely reversed from the frequent cliché, with her the predator demanding sex and him more able to unfold his simple need for warmth, hugs, connection, family.

 

 

There are some huge laughs, brilliantly evoked by the physical clumsiness, the Dad-dancing from him and exaggerated bop from her at the slightly awful playlist from the party. And often too at his helpless, honest blokey bathos when she soars off into rom-com fantasy. And rarely has there been a more honest erotic exchange than – following each one’s admission tha tthey don’t do cocaine – “I’d go a Ginsters with you” “I”d go a Ginsters with you too”. Beautiful.

 

box office Phone: 020 7395 5405 to 24 March
rating four    4 Meece Rating

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WOMAN BEFORE A GLASS Jermyn St theatre

PEGGY GUGGENHEIM WALKS AGAIN

 

 

You cross the stage floor to the toilets and a warning sign on the little set alerts you to the danger of tripping over a “solid stone” bench. So I tapped it, expecting polystyrene or MDF but no – solid. Apparently it was hell getting it down the narrow stairs. Quite right though: nothing but quality has a place in the classy whiteness of Erika Rodriguez’ set for this evocation of Peggy Guggenheim’s life, art collection and robust attitudes. And when Judy Rosenblatt prowls onto the stage to dump on it an armful of posh frocks and reminisce (“I danced all night with Duchamp in this” etc), the dresses are pretty classy too. Director Austin Pendleton and – even more deservingly – writer Lanie Robertson won plaudits for this one-woman show in the US, and it is a feather in the cap of the little Jermyn to bring it here. Try not to miss it. Really, I mean it..

 

 

Rosenblatt – chirpy, confidential, demanding – catches precisely the masterful and irritable energy of the woman who – wealthy, but from “millionaire not billionaire” branch of the family – almost singlehandedly supported, bought, promoted and championed the most important art of the mid-2oth century. Drawing from interviews and her own writings, Robertson has picked out the anecdotes, the boasts, the tragedies and the vital moments of insight and woven them into something moving, arresting, often very funny. It was, she says, one of her lovers Samuel Beckett who told her – a Renaissance-lover – to collect and pay attention to the art of her own time, Europe’s turbulent years, and to support those who expressed it. There was beauty too in her adoption of Venice, where the astonishing collection is now safe in her little palazzo under the aegis of her (often heavily disparaged ) “ugly uncle” Guggenheim in America, The melding of old aestheic sensitivities and the shockingly new is what makes visiting it so marvellous. I nearly booked another flight to Venice in the train going home, so passionately did she evoke the marvels of Kandinsky, Picasso, Pollock, Rothko, Giacometti and the rest.

 

 

But it is entertaining too, as she shrugs through anecdotes about great figures of the century, whether dancing the night away with her, accepting bungs of money to get on making art painting, or in one case being exasperatingly holed up “in the spare room with a couple of Russian soldiers”. Her hopes and sorrows and admiration for her artist daughter Pegeen – and Pegeen’s sad end – are handled with finesse and real feeling; her passion for colour, form, soul and honesty in all art forms is infectious, her blasts of spite at her uncle’s “Tyrolean bitch” enchanting. The description – never laboured – of how close she came to being rounded up by Nazi soldiers as a “Juive” while on her way to flee through the Med with the precious “decadent” artworks is superb. “Je suis Americaine!” she spat, and they backed off.

 

It came alive, every minute of it. A tremendous performance, a jewel.

http://www.jermystreetheatre.co.uk to 3 Feb
rating five  5 Meece Rating

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A PASSAGE TO INDIA Royal, Northampton and touring

SULTRY HEAT AND SEXUAL DREAD…

 

 

Our age is beginning, once more, to appreciate E.M.Forster properly: the recent TV Howards’s End caught his wit as well as the social indignation and melancholy, and allowed something of the philosophical-mystical oddity of the man and his dream of “only connect”. This adaptation by Simon Dormandy – who co-directs with Sebastian Armesto – takes his strange, angry, yearningly reconciliatory story about the Raj in its pomp in 1910, with white colonialists and Indians woefully disconnected, and treats it with intelligent care and interesting theatrics.

 

 

I remembered the book mostly for the central event – English Adela wrongly accusing Dr Aziz of molesting her in the Marabar caves, rousing both communities to fury and only recanting at the trial. So I expected the satirical disgust at Anglo-Indian prejudice and the weird sexual dread which – as I remember from a few childhood years in apartheid South Africa – fuels a lot of racism. We get that: the prim policeman McBride averring that “The darker races are physically attracted to the lighter. It’s a scientific fact”. We get the harrumphing voices at the Club, Mrs Callendar saying “Call in the army! Flog the bastards!”, and the stiff fretful young magistrate realizing that Adela’s passion for “the real India” would not be suitable in his future memsahib. We get, also a copybook example of prosecutorial indignation trying to shore up a recovered false memory of abuse. Very topical.

 

 

But I had somehow forgotten, and since have re-read, the religious, mystical strangeness of the book. This is what Dormandy and Armesto arrestingly express by having the ensemble cast open the play by chorally quoting Walt Whitman’s poem of the same title , about “God’s purpose” being to bring all races together. Old Mrs Moore, philosophically aged, first meets Aziz in a mosque, sharing his sense of God. Yet near her end – Liz Crowther quite terrifyingly expressing this – the old woman loses God and her only-connecting beliefs , in a breakdown triggered by the terrifying blank inexpressive “Boom!” echo in the caves, which also disastrously throw Adela into hallucinating panic.

 

 

So the play, like the book, expresses this deep ancient dread of emptiness, meaninglesness: a spiteful pointless universe only alleviated by the wacky irrationality of the final Hindu ceremonies of Krishna’s birth. This production expresses it by creating, alongside the prosaic club and court and tea-party scenes, a sense of otherness: giving that “boom!” sound with voices and breaking into moments of ritual movement, a dim-lit ensemble creating the cave-doors and boats and river with heavy staves. Strong choreography and Kuljit Bhamra’s moody score (the live music onstage was from Meera Raja on press night) make it work. Phoebe Pryce gives us a good Adela in her earnest tripperish naiveté and rising, sexually charged distress: Asif Khan is a fascinating Aziz, initially burbling in cartoonish, nervous-to-please ‘babu’ style, his Muslim purity irritated by “Hindus, so sloppy!”, but after the accusation growing in rage, rejecting white friendship from Richard Goulding’s liberal Fielding, then reaching final reconciliation only in the dreamlike scenes which end it.

 

 

I left more moved than I expected, reflecting on Forster’s redemptive dream and how far we have and haven’t come. But also noting how the heat and feverish colour of India can turn some from the white race to mysticism, some to nervous arrogant pomposity, some to terrified sexual dread. All of which still happen..

 

 

box office 01604 624811. to 20 Jan
touring Salisbury , Bristol, Liverpool, Bromley
Reaches Park Theatre London, 20 Feb.    Touring Mouse wide
rating four

4 Meece Rating

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